Attack of the Super PACs


Published January 06, 2012, issue of January 13, 2012.
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Now that the election year has officially begun, we can take stock of something different about the landscape this time around. The momentous Supreme Court decision two years ago on campaign finance, Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee, has given rise to a new and potentially destructive player in this and future election cycles: the Super PAC.

The Supreme Court effectively allowed the creation of these slush funds, or super political action committees, which can accept unlimited donations for the purpose of supporting or opposing a candidate. They operate independently — though usually in some kind of collaboration with one campaign or another — and without much transparency about which source of big money is providing the funding.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, a total of $12.9 million was spent in 2011 by these Super PACs in support of the various Republican contenders. And we’re just getting started.

In the just completed Iowa caucuses, you could feel the impact. A deluge of ads paid for by Super PACs associated with Mitt Romney and costing nearly $3 million took aim at Newt Gingrich and showed up every few minutes on Iowans’ TV screens. Gingrich was accused of having “more baggage than the airlines,” of being weak on immigration, and his congressional ethics violations were dredged up. According to many observers, and Gingrich himself, the ads had a serious role in deflating his hopes for more votes.

Not that Romney is unique in benefiting from the Super PACs. Gingrich has a Super PAC associated with him, as well, and they too began running negative ads as soon as they had enough money. These groups have, in fact, proliferated over the past few months and have been filling massive war chests. And we can only imagine what will happen in the general election. Already, President Obama has a Super PAC, Priorities USA, that hopes to raise at least $100 million.

We are going to see swift-boating taken to a whole new level.

There is something distinctly shady about politics performed this way. Candidates can easily keep their hands clean of the negative ads by outsourcing to these groups. They still remain within the law because they aren’t coordinating with the campaigns, but there is no illusion that they are independent in terms of strategy and message. The group that was so effective for Romney in Iowa, Restore Our Future, is run by a full roster of former Romney aides, including the political director of his 2008 campaign, his former chief consul and media director.

This creates a system in which the candidates can avoid taking responibility for the dirty stuff carried out for their benefit — averting their eyes as these political hitmen do their work.

But the bigger problem is the channel these new groups have provided for big money to influence elections. While there is a cap of $2,500 on how much an individual can contribute to a candidate, giving to the Super PACs is unlimited. Naturally, corporations, unions, and rich individuals and lobbies see in these groups an opportunity to pack an outsized punch.

The regular voter loses out in all of this. If we just look at the 2010 midterm election — the first to allow Super PACs — we can quickly see the imblance. According to the Sunlight Foundation, there were almost 27,000 people, or about 1/100th of the American population, who spent more than $10,000 on the election. This 1% contributed $774 million toward campaigns and candidates, but mostly to Super PACs where they could give to their heart’s desire (even scarier, the elite top 10 people in this group accounted for $23 million in donations).

It’s fairly self-evident why this is detrimental to American democracy, but we’ll give the last word to Justice John Paul Stevens, who saw this coming when he wrote his dissenting argument two years ago:

“At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

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