Former FEC Chairman Potter decries campaign finance system
What is the best way to finance election campaigns?
WHO: Trevor Potter
POSITIONS: Attorney, Caplin & Drysdale, Washington, D.C.; political law and campaign finance expert; former Federal Election Commission chairman; Stephen Colbert’s lawyer and Super PAC adviser
QUOTE: “What we have now [in terms of campaign finance in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision] is dangerous craziness. I just don’t think the country wants 15 or 20 individuals electing the president, which is the danger you have when 15 or 20 billionaires are the principal funders of the system.”
Updated: August 6, 2012 6:09AM
About a year ago, political law expert and former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter received an intriguing phone call.
A staffer from “The Colbert Report” wanted to know whether Potter would meet with show host Stephen Colbert, who was interested in learning about Political Action Committees and Super PACs.
The rest, as they say, is history.
And Potter – whose boyhood weekends were spent at his parents’ Libertyville-area farm – hopes that his appearances on the popular Comedy Central TV show will help alter history.
“What we have now [after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision] is dangerous craziness,” the Washington lawyer said. “I just don’t think the country wants 15 or 20 individuals electing the president, which is the danger you have when 15 or 20 billionaires are the principal funders of the system.”
Potter, 57, is a Republican who was deputy general counsel to the George H.W. Bush 1988 campaign and general counsel to John McCain’s 2008 and 2000 campaigns. An alumnus of the Latin School of Chicago, which he attended through middle school, Potter also was a Federal Election Commission commissioner from 1991 to 1995 and chaired the commission in 1994.
Although many view the 2010 Citizens United decision as favorable to Republicans, Potter said the decision was good for no one.
“If you go back to the Watergate era, Richard Nixon raised millions of dollars, much of it secretly,” Potter said. “We ended up with … cash being used for burglaries, a president in disgrace and a party in disarray.”
Citizens United opened the corporate spending floodgates. In essence, it allows Political Action Committees that don’t directly contribute to candidates, parties or other PACs to accept unlimited contributions for “independent expenditures.”
During the 2012 Republican primary, resulting Super PACs have spent millions of dollars, primarily on negative ads. One billionaire, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, provided $20 million to a Super PAC that supported Newt Gingrich’s Republican presidential primary bid. Adelson reportedly now has pledged millions to a Super PAC supportive of Mitt Romney.
The Supreme Court decision has been a game-changer, and not in a good way, said Potter, who helped write the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law that Citizens United has gutted.
“I don’t think the country wants either candidate, and particularly the incumbent candidate, running around day in and day out attending fundraising luncheons and dinners,” Potter said. “That’s exactly what the public funding system was designed to avoid.”
The result of Citizens United is too much power in too few hands, and the political disenfranchisement of the average citizen, Potter said, adding that he hopes Congress will adopt laws forcing change, or that this or a future Supreme Court will reverse the decision.
Meanwhile, he’ll continue to appear on The Colbert Report. His legal advice to Colbert regarding the show host’s Super PAC – Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow – and the banter between them has helped make a complex subject digestible.
“[Colbert’s] genius is to be able to take a very complicated subject and, first of all, understand it, and then to explain it to people in language that catches their attention and makes them laugh, all in a four-and-a-half-minute segment,” Potter said. “That’s pretty hard.”
Potter added that he enjoys working with Colbert, who he described as “intelligent,” “quick,” “funny,” and “a very nice, decent guy.”
Potter has a sister, Barbara Potter of Chicago, and brother, Charlie Potter of Lake Forest, and enjoys regular visits to the area.
“There’s nothing like a day on the lake shore,” he said, quickly adding the qualifier “in the summer.”
For the last 10 years, Potter has led the nonprofit public interest group the Campaign Legal Center, which researches and advocates for campaign finance transparency and fairness. Relevant court cases and updated information can be found at campaignlegalcenter.org, he said.
The site also features video clips of Potter’s Colbert appearances.
“At the end of the day, I’m a citizen like anybody else,” Potter said. “I sit in Washington, so I see how the system works, and I’m troubled by it.”