Is Jeb Bush violating campaign finance laws?

There is little doubt that there are more than a few people at the offices of the New York Times who would like to see Jeb Bush knocked out of the 2016 race. With that in mind, I took it with a grain of salt when I noticed an article of theirs implying that he has been skirting campaign finance laws and “testing the definition of a candidate” with his recent activities. A few of the points they raise are actually valid questions in light of our byzantine fundraising regulations, but the real issue probably isn’t so much with Bush as with the rules themselves.

Jeb Bush is under growing pressure to acknowledge what seems obvious to some voters and election lawyers: He is running for president.

The lawyers say Mr. Bush, a former Florida governor, is stretching the limits of election law by crisscrossing the country, hiring a political team and raising tens of millions of dollars at fund-raisers, all without declaring — except once, by mistake — that he is a candidate.

Some election experts say Mr. Bush passed the legal threshold to be considered a candidate months ago, even if he has not formally acknowledged it. Federal law makes anyone who raises or spends $5,000 in an effort to become president a candidate and thus subject to fund-raising, spending and disclosure rules. Greater latitude is allowed for those who, like Mr. Bush, say they are merely “testing the waters” for a possible run.

Just to be clear here, Jeb Bush is raising a lot of money. And people quite close to him, working through the auspices of allegedly independent groups, are raising even more. And while I suppose it’s still hypothetically possible that he hasn’t made up his mind and might not run, that seems extremely dubious. If it waddles and quacks like a candidate, it’s probably a candidate. But there’s part of the problem… when it comes to the law, “probably” just isn’t good enough to meet the standard, no matter how obvious it might appear.

So the Times dug up a former member of the FEC who was willing to go on record and say that Jeb Bush is making a mockery of the law. Perhaps. But maybe the other conclusion you could reach is that the law has been in need of some good mockery for a long time now. Why is there something magical about the person standing up in front of a camera and saying, “I’m running for President of the United States” as opposed to going and meeting with hundreds of donors and primary voters in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina to tell them about all the wonderful things you’re going to do for them if you become president? The law itself seems to be an open invitation to break it and you don’t need to be a criminal mastermind to figure out how.

Of course, as noted above, Bush managed to fall short of that threshold once already when he accidentally spoke the magic phrase. On May 13th he said the words on cameraI’m running for president in 2016, and the focus is gonna be about how we—if I run—how do you create high, sustained economic growth?

Sure, nine words later he slipped in an “if I run” as some form of verbal White Out on the media page, but if we’re going to be sticklers about this, wasn’t the game over at that point? Did the authors of the campaign finance laws forget to include a No Backsies clause in that paragraph? He said he was running. That seems to be good enough for everyone else in the race.

If you’re reading this and thinking that sounds like a fairly ridiculous argument, that’s because it is. Trying to lay out a set of rules which work one way for an unspecified number of days, hours and minutes and then suddenly switch up and operate under an entirely different framework based on one human being uttering eight specific words is insane. What if all they ever say is, “I’m working to get your vote because I’d like to be president” and they forget to structure the phrase properly? Can they just keep raising as much money as they want? Here’s an idea to consider: if we must have all these rules about collection and reporting of donations for presidential campaigns, why not assign a season to it? Raise all the money you like until nine months before the date of the first primary. If you never run then you’ll have to explain that to all your donors yourself. But if you do run, any money you raised after that date will be accounted for under the existing laws.

Something like that might make this process a lot more simple, or at least considerably less foolish looking.