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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, left, accompanied by Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Feb. 1 to discuss the disclosure of super PAC donors to the Republican presidential candidates.

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.

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.

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.

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

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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