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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.

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In his Super Bowl interview with Matt Lauer, the president said that he was worried about the negativity of so many Super PAC ads.

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But negativity is neither new nor harmful. The 1800 contest between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson makes the Romney-Gingrich fight look like a stroll in the moonlight. Research shows that negative ads are actually more informative and better documented than positive ones.

Although super PACs spend much of their money on ads, they also engage in efforts to get voters to the polls. This year, they will be mobilizing people through phone banks, door-to-door contact, and social media. So they not only provide information, they encourage political participation. That’s not a threat to democracy.

So why only two cheers and not three?

Although super PACs report their contributors, certain loopholes prevent people from getting a full picture of their finances. Political groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code do not have to disclose their donors, and yet they may spend substantial resources on campaign activities, including contributions and payments to super PACs.

Accordingly, it’s sometimes impossible to follow the money all the way to its source. We know that the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action got $215,234 in late 2011 from a 501(c)(4) called Priorities USA, but we have no way of knowing where the latter group raised the money. Similarly, the conservative Freedomworks for America super PAC, received a large share of its funds from the Freedomworks 501(c)(4).

And although super PACs are technically forbidden to coordinate with candidates, there are ways around this prohibition. Candidates may give directions to super PACs if they do it in public. A spokesperson for a pro-Gingrich super PAC has said: “We take out marching orders through the media for Newt Gingrich.” One could say much the same of “The Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC.” 

Loopholes and subterfuge are definitely not good for voter confidence in democratic processes.

Congress should revise campaign finance law to provide greater transparency for campaign spending by 501(c)(4) groups. It could also raise the limit on direct contributions to campaigns and provide a tax credit for small donations. Such a system would encourage more people to participate and channel a grater share of campaign money – in a fully transparent fashion – to candidate committees, which would have direct control and accountability.

The White House might not be joining in the two cheers for super PACs, but it will probably ease up on the criticism. Despite the misgivings he expressed in his Super Bowl interview, the president reversed course and climbed aboard the super PAC bandwagon. The very next day, his campaign committee announced that it would encourage contributions to Priorities USA Action.

John J. Pitney, Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of “American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship.”


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