Two cheers for super PACs
Super PACs aren’t the constitution-eating monsters critics have made them out to be. In fact, they engage voters in the democratic process. So why only two cheers? Loopholes prevent full transparency on where these groups get their funding. But Congress can fix that.
Claremont McKenna, Calif.
As a result of several key judicial decisions, the 2010 election brought forth a new kind of political organization: the super PAC. In the 2012 election cycle, these oft-vilified political action committees (PACs) continue to make a name for themselves.Skip to next paragraph
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Attacks on super PACs have been fierce. At a 2010 campaign reception where tickets cost up to $2,400, President Obama called them “a threat to democracy.” A recent article in The Daily Beast refers to them as “shadowy organizations” that “wreak havoc on the presidential campaign.” Even Mitt Romney, who benefited from this "havoc" when super PACs ran ads against his opponents, says he wishes that they would "disappear."
But such criticism – from both sides of the aisle – is overblown. Super PACs may have their problems, but they are not the Constitution-eating monsters critics have made them out to be.
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What makes a super PAC so super?
A regular PAC may take contributions only up to $5,000 per individual, and none from unions or corporations. By contrast, a super PAC can accept unlimited sums from individuals, unions, and corporations. Unlike a regular PAC, it cannot give money directly to candidates. But it can make unlimited independent expenditures for ads and other campaign items, as long as it does not directly coordinate with the candidates that it is helping.
Under close analysis, some of the loudest, most frequent criticisms of super PACs don’t hold up.
Opponents say that super PACs enable corporate interests to buy undue influence over the federal government.
There are a couple of problems with such claims. Business corporations account for less than a quarter of contributions to these groups: most of the money comes from individuals. And whether the source consists of corporate treasuries or personal checking accounts, political scientists have not found strong and consistent evidence that contributions drive policy decisions. Rather, contributors tend to support officials for taking stands that they would have taken anyway.
In any case, one need not play the campaign finance game to wield influence. Arguably the most powerful lobby in Washington, AARP, has never given a cent to a campaign or a super PAC. It wields influence because it represents millions of people, which is the way a democracy is supposed to work.
Critics also warn that super PAC money buys elections.
Some attribute the 2010 GOP takeover of the House to the ads that these groups ran in key districts. The flaw in this assertion is that most national polls showed Republicans pulling ahead in congressional voting preference before any super PACs had spent one cent.
In the current campaign, Newt Gingrich has blamed his own woes on a pro-Romney super PAC. As political scientist John Geer has pointed out, Mr. Gingrich crashed in Iowa not because of attack ads against him, but because his numbers were going down all over the country, including places that never saw the ads. Even in Florida, exit polls showed that voters wanted a candidate who could win in November. Attacks by super PACs did not render Gingrich unelectable in a national race – Gingrich has been doing to himself that for nearly 20 years.