At least four Cabinet members appear ready and willing to answer President Barack Obama’s call to help fill the coffers of Democratic outside spending groups, which have to date been badly outgunned by better-funded Republican organizations.
After previously denouncing the so-called “super PACs” as a “threat to democracy,” Obama signed off last week on a move to allow top campaign aides and high-level White House officials to raise money.
Some of those going to bat for the president have long histories of raising money for their own political careers, and even bundling money for Obama’s campaign four years ago.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk have all indicated they would be open to participation in activities designed to help the nascent Democratic super PACs, like “Priorities USA Action,” raise money.
“Arne has spoken at campaign-related events in the past on his personal time,” Education spokesman Justin Hamilton told iWatch News. “While he doesn’t yet have any invitations to future events, any that he might attend will be done in strict compliance with the law.”
A similar willingness was also expressed by Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher, whose boss raised more than $13.5 million for his own U.S. Senate campaigns before Obama asked him to become Secretary of the Interior in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Any invitation for the Secretary to speak at campaign events will be considered in the same way we evaluate all scheduling requests, which includes making sure that all appearances fully comply with rules governing political activity,” Fetcher told iWatch News.
A spokesperson in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative likewise noted that whatever campaign-related activities Kirk may engage in would be cleared by the general counsel’s office in advance.
This wouldn’t be the first time that Kirk has helped Obama’s team raise money: He personally bundled between $50,000 and $100,000 for Obama’s campaign four years ago, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
This nexus of power and the chase for campaign cash doesn’t sit well with many good-government advocates, especially when there’s no limit on how much money donors can give to super PACs.
“This brings into focus the whole issue of access and influence,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that frequently supports campaign finance reforms. “When you give money, you get access and influence — a way to be heard differently from everyone else.”
Obama’s change of heart was clearly due to the fundraising disadvantage Democratic super PACs and nonprofits have experienced compared to their Republican counterparts.
Generally speaking, federal law prohibits top White House officials like Cabinet secretaries from using their positions to raise money for candidates. The Hatch Act allows government officials to personally donate money to political committees or engage in a variety of partisan activities, so long as they do so during their personal time and do not use government resources.
They may not solicit campaign contributions — but that doesn’t prohibit them from appearing at political fundraisers.
Last year, several administration officials, including Duncan and Chu, appeared at fundraising events for the Obama campaign, as part of a “speakers series,” in which donors contributed money and mingled with high-level White House officials.
Those events, even while upholding the letter of the law, earned criticism from many Republicans, including Karl Rove, the former senior advisor and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.
“What they’re doing is establishing a process by which you can buy influence,” Rove said at the time.
Rove himself had appeared at fundraisers for Bush during his time as a White House aide. He also helped operate a “political boiler room” within the White House that was criticized in an official Office of Special Counsel report last year.
Meanwhile, some other seasoned rainmakers in Obama’s Cabinet won’t be on the fundraising stump.
United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who bundled between $50,000 and $100,000 for Obama’s campaign four years ago, will not be participating in any fundraising events for either the new super PACs or the president.
The same is true of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who raised more than $200 million during her unsuccessful presidential run in 2008 — and more than $80 million during her two U.S. Senate bids after leaving the White House.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Attorney General Eric Holder, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano are among other top Obama administration officials who are not expected to appear at any fundraisers.
“Longstanding Department of Defense policy requires that the Secretary and all Senate-confirmed and non-career senior executive service officials refrain from participating in partisan political activities,” said Carl Woog, a DOD spokesman.
LaHood — who raised about $7 million over his career as a congressman, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — “hasn’t and won’t be participating in any political fundraising,” said DOT spokesman Justin Nisly.
Super PACs were created last year in the wake of two federal court rulings, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. They can collect unlimited amounts of money from individuals, unions and corporations to spend on advertising to elect or defeat candidates, but cannot illegally coordinate with the candidates themselves or make direct contributions.
Not everyone is concerned about Cabinet members being involved in the super PAC money chase.
“You don’t lose your rights to free speech just because you hold public office,” conservative attorney Dan Backer of DB Capitol Strategies said. “You may have a public trust, but you shouldn’t lose your free speech rights.”
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