Now it's super PACs' turn in crosshairs

Sen. Charles Schumer talks to editors and reporters Sen. Charles Schumer talks to editors and reporters at Newsday in Melville. (April 30, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/Ed Betz

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New ...

Without prompting, third-term Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer rips into the way mega-money from corporations and wealthy individuals suffuses federal elections.

The moment merits notice.

Even before ascending to the Senate in 1998, and later leading his party's campaign committee, Schumer emerged as an aggressive fundraiser. While still a Brooklyn congressman, he marshaled support from financial services industry PACs and employees.

Before big financial institutions collapsed in 2008, Schumer worked with Wall Street on deregulation moves, consistently saying his actions aimed to shield New York's financial-sector jobs.

Now, as huge emergency taxpayer bailouts approved by Congress begin to disappear in the rearview mirror, the partisan conversation has shifted to the merits of the Dodd-Frank restrictions on what bank holding corporations, hedge funds and other financial entities may do.

In an interview Monday with Newsday editors and reporters, Schumer, a leading figure in the Senate's majority conference, expressed optimism about the Democrats' chances in November based on the party's economic message. But he offered a caveat: the advent of super PACs.

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"I have never seen anything like this in my life," he said.

Schumer even goes so far as to call the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that led to super PACs -- by voiding limits on corporate and union political expenditures -- the worst since 1896, when the court upheld state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities.

Weeks ago, Politico reported that 17 donors of more than a million dollars each had contributed half of the estimated $81 million that went to super PACs backing Republican presidential hopefuls.

"Is that amazing? That's incredible in terms of its effect on our political system, to have 17 people have such huge power," Schumer said.

He echoed the widespread assessment that it is nonsense to believe such PAC expenditures are "independent," as supposed in the ruling, and not coordinated with campaigns. Election experts point out that the organizations are already commonly identified by such descriptions as "the Obama super PAC" or "the Romney super PAC."

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The new PACs "had a profound effect" on the GOP primaries, Schumer said. "Every time Romney was in trouble, the way he saved himself" was through him or his allies "coming in and putting massive amounts of money in," he said -- far outspending Newt Gingrich and "pummeling him" in negative attacks.

A lack of timely disclosure in this new landscape "is really bad, because there's no accountability," Schumer said. "If you can put an ad on, and not disclose who's doing it, you can be much nastier, meaner and less truthful than if there was some disclosure."

The high court's 5-4 decision in 2010 in the Citizens United case drew fire from critics by equating the First Amendment rights of corporations and unions with those of individuals.

Schumer's is hardly a lone voice. Even the Republicans' last presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who co-authored campaign-finance laws heralded a decade ago, hits a similar note.

"What the Supreme Court did is a combination of arrogance, naivete and stupidity the likes of which I have never seen," Reuters quoted McCain on March 27 as saying. "I promise you, there will be huge scandals, because there's too much money washing around, too much of it we don't know who's behind it, and too much corruption associated with that kind of money."

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