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Super PACs: Shedding the Bad Rap

Endorsement of McCain-Feingold

John McCain and Russ Feingold join Tim Roemer, Jim Greenwood, and Ellen Tauscher to endorse the McCain-Feingold legislation.

Emily Charnock provides a very insightful post that reveals strong similarities between Super PACs and the various independently organized committees throughout the twentieth century. In other words, we have been here before. These kind of committees typically arise because (a) citizens and groups want to have a voice in picking candidates or shaping policy, and (b) they have been forbidden by law from giving money directly to candidates or political parties.

Political reformers concerned about the role of money in politics should rightfully be concerned about how wealth translates into political power. Reformers, however, typically assume there is "too much money" when, in fact, it could easily be argued that there is too little, particularly if we consider the costs of informing and mobilizing voters. This assumption leads to solutions that tend to put limits on contributions that are way too low.Thus, politicians and their supporters have a strong incentive to find methods to get around them. Super PACs are but one manifestation of what happens when rules clamp down overzealously on political money.

This faulty assumption leads reformers to believe that politicians can rely solely on small donors exclusively to fuel their campaigns. While the power of the Internet has vastly improved the ability to tap contributions from citizens of modest means, the revenues from this strategy are by no means sufficient to pay for a major campaign. Politicians must supplement their finances with contributions from major donors, political parties and interest groups. By setting low limits on contributions, politicians and their supporters will continually seek other ways of campaigning. Enter the Super PACs.

Paradoxically, Super PACs have been able to do what reformers tried to do with public financing of presidential campaigns -- give all candidates a respectable amount of money to run a campaign. As a result, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have had an easier time staying in the hunt during the Republican nomination process, despite the fact that Mitt Romney could vastly overwhelm them both with the money he raises under the traditional financing system with limits on contributions. In other words, Super PACs may help competition by providing second tier candidates and challengers with funds to stay competitive against the establishment candidate. Even if the establishment candidate counter-attacks with his own Super PAC, the challengers have enough money to run a viable campaign. Interestingly, Super PACs may diminish the power of the media, which can extinguish the flow of traditional contributions to a candidate simply by implying he is fatally weakened. Super PACs come to the rescue with an infusion of money that is not as vulnerable to media horserace coverage.

But several problems potentially emerge from a reliance on Super PACs. First, there is the perennial question of wealthy interests buying politicians. My sense is that the wealthy individuals supporting the GOP presidential nominees are doing it out of ideological fervor and friendship. And to the extent that corporations are involved, they appear to be privately-held corporations, with executives who have longstanding personal ties to the candidates. For example, many of the corporate contributors to Romney's campaign are former friends with relationships to his company (Bain) or the Mormon Church. To be sure, I do not know how the characteristics of Super PACs donors will change as this campaign vehicle becomes institutionalized. We may in fact see more corporations getting involved, just like they did with traditional PACs.

To my mind, a larger problem is that the money is flowing through unaccountable organizations with opaque names, like "Red, White and Blue." Voters do not know these organizations. It would be better if these funds flowed directly to the candidate and the political parties. Reforms such as McCain-Feingold and, before that, the Federal Election Campaign Act, stimulated the proliferation of independent groups and weakened the central role of parties in financing elections. Parties have a unique role in organizing elections from year to year, and have strong incentives to finance challengers as way of winning majorities in legislatures. Moreover, as organizations comprised of coalitions they are not necessarily beholden to one large financier or ideological faction.

The current system of Super PACs will proliferate. Many more members of Congress will surely form their own Super PAC, or else they will be forced to spend more than half their week raising money the old-fashioned way, under laws with strict limits on contributions. It's probably time to raise those limits. It's also time to bring back soft money for political parties. McCain-Feingold was a mistake. With some reasonable limits on soft money the political parties would carve out a stronger and more accountable role in federal campaigns. Super PACs might then become less enticing for politicians.

Ray La Raja is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Univesity of Massachusetts Amherst.

 

 

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