The Influence of the Super PACs


Super PACs have been in the news a lot lately, especially with Stephen Colbert establishing one. He’s trying to show people how money influence politics, of course, and how Super PACs in particular operate. But some are now pushing back, defending the organizations and how they work. E.D. Kain argues that the Super PACs help diminish the influence of the parties.

The argument goes like this: Newt Gingrich is opposed by the Republican party apparatus. If it was up to them, he wouldn’t even be in the race and he would not be a viable candidate if he was. The GOP has literally been telling big republican donors not to donate to Newt. But because Sheldon Adelson, the third richest man in America, has given $10 million to the Winning the Future Super PAC — which is pro-Newt but is not able to coordinate with the campaign, wink wink — he was able to compete with the Restore Our Future Super PAC that supports Mitt (but is also not coordinating with the campaign, wink wink). Kain argues:

On the other hand, I’m sort of thrilled to see the duopoly threatened. Our two-party system really is a threat to American democracy. No power bases are more entrenched than the Democratic and Republican parties. Money be damned, if the party is going to unite around Bush in 2000 then McCain’s chances are null and void. In 2012, the rules have changed.

Is this the first crack in the GOP’s thick armor – an even more stunning change of fortune than the Tea Party sweep in 2010? I wrote recently about how Citizens United helped take at least a little power away from traditional media corporations. Is it also weakening the two-party grip on the political system? Could this be the beginning of the end for lesser-of-two-evils democracy in America?

This is more than a little naive. I agree with him about the downside of giving so much power to political parties, but swapping dependence on the parties for dependence on billionaires with clear public policy interests is a giant step sideways. Kain also argues:

To Chait’s fretting over good government, why should we be more concerned with the influence of one billionaire over the decisions of a hypothetical president Newt Gingrich than with the amassed influence of corporations over the Republican party itself? After all, if Gingrich did anything explicitly to help Sheldon Adelson we’d know about it rather quickly. Everyone would be paying close attention. But the machinations of the Republican party itself and the money which keeps the back-scratching mutual between the party and its benefactors is largely opaque – a perpetual process that, like breathing, we barely notice at all.

Again, terribly naive. Newt wouldn’t have to do anything directly for Adelson. According to reports, Adelson’s biggest policy issue is Israel and Newt has already shifted his positions from a moderate, Obama-like position to the more standard right wing position on Israel (note to slc1: Please don’t turn the comments into yet another debate on Israel policy; it really isn’t relevant to the point of this post). As Larry Lessig argues in his book, the real problem here is not the after-the-fact gifts to big contributors, it is the preliminary shifting of one’s positions in order to appeal to big contributors.

This also ignores the fact that Super PACs don’t have to disclose their donors until after the elections. We know that money came from Adelson because he said it did. There was no requirement for that to be disclosed until after the election is already over. Or they can give the money to a 501(c)(4) with a flowery name, like Americans for Cute Kittens and Clean Air, and that “non-profit” can then give the money to the Super PAC with no disclosure at all.

It also ignores the role of 527s, which can easily swing an election by running millions of dollars worth of “issues ads” that are immune to disclosure laws entirely because they don’t expressly advocate for or against a candidate (wink, wink). Those are the ads you see all the time just before an election that often end with “Call Representative so-and-so and tell him you don’t want him to kill kittens and kindly grandmothers.”

Here’s the real danger in all of this. Let’s say a corporation or a rich individual wants a legislator to vote a certain way on a bill, a way that benefits them tremendously. They can now walk into that legislator’s office and say something like this: “If you don’t vote our way on this bill, in the next election we’re going to spend $10 million on ‘issues ads’ in your district to sink your campaign.” The actual amount they can spend has no limits at all and they can do it without ever disclosing that they are the ones who did it. That is incredible power to distort the legislative process in their favor.

Lessig makes a very compelling argument in his book on this matter. We zealously guard voting equality on election days only. On election day, your vote and my vote carries exactly the same weight as Sheldon Adelson, George Soros or David Koch. But in between those election days, those men and hundreds more like them carry millions of times more weight than us.

And bear in mind that all of this not the fault of the Citizens United ruling. 527s and Super PACs existed before that ruling, and wealthy individuals were already allowed to donate unlimited amounts of money to them. Citizens United allowed corporations to do so directly rather than having to set up their own PAC to contribute to the others. It’s just as easy for the owner of the corporation to do it as an individual rather than out of corporation funds directly.

I have become convinced that the influence of money in politics is the single most important issue today. It is the issue that underlies all the other issues, that so distorts the incentives in our political system that we are, for all practical purposes, no longer a democracy. Government is responsive primarily to the rich, not to the people.

Comments

  1. eric says

    Ed:

    Government is responsive primarily to the rich, not to the people.

    This, however, is a result of other problems. It is a symptom, not the disease. The cause – the why candidates are primarily responsive to the rich – is lack of education and critical thinking skills, which renders much of the population overly-dependent on, and susceptable to, emotionally-based and biased advertising.

    If negative ads didn’t work, politicians wouldn’t use them. Likewise, if $millions spent on advertising didn’t directly translate into votes, politicians wouldn’t see the need to pander to rich people.

    While we consider regulations on campaign spending, we should also be working on improving education and free access to credible political information (e.g. via the internet) as a means of drastically reducing the impact campaign contributions have on votes.

  2. says

    On the other hand, I’m sort of thrilled to see the duopoly threatened.

    SuperPACs helping candidates to fight for the ability to lead one of the two parties is a threat to the duopoly? What color is the sky in this guy’s bubble-verse — brown? Is he actually trying to pretend that Republican superPACs, organized to support Republican candidates, are anything but Republican organs?

  3. says

    “Our two-party system really is a threat to American democracy.”

    This always drives me nuts. A two-party system might be a bad thing. But it cannot be a threat to “American” democracy, because American democracy from the very beginning has been a two-party system. I do not see any realistic prospects for moving to a multi-party system without altering the way we elect people.

  4. says

    Maybe I’m naive, or totally jaded, but I completely and totally ignore the ads.

    That’s what the remote control is for. And HBO (no ads!). And my DVR.

    I rarely watch the “local” commercial stations, and if a political ad pops up, I usually hit the mute button. Or switch to a different channel.

    Plus, there’s something of a sport going on now in journalistic circles in debunking the ads themselves. Any misstatement of facts or jiggering of the truth is immediately discredited.

    Who exactly do these ads affect in the way they’re intended?

    To me, it’s just guaranteed profits for TV stations. Nothing more.

    Heck, I already know who I’m going to vote for in the general election. How in the world will $1 billion or $100 billion in attack ads change my mind?

  5. says

    They can now walk into that legislator’s office and say something like this: “If you don’t vote our way on this bill, in the next election we’re going to spend $10 million on ‘issues ads’ in your district to sink your campaign.” The actual amount they can spend has no limits at all and they can do it without ever disclosing that they are the ones who did it. That is incredible power to distort the legislative process in their favor.

    But this is what conservatives now call free speech. They finally found a 1st amendment issue they can believe in.

  6. Jordan Genso says

    If spending money is the same as speech, and we are allowed to convince people who to vote for by talking to them, wouldn’t that make it legal to actually pay people for their vote? Then if political ads become ineffective (as is the goal in comment #1), the candidates with lots of money can just directly buy votes.

    I think the only solution is to say that spending money is not the same as speech, and put limits on political spending.

  7. says

    I have become convinced that the influence of money in politics is the single most important issue today.

    Notice how you, and just about everyone else, are still making this complaint despite DECADES of “campaign finance reform” laws? We’ve been trying to “get money out of politics” since the 1970s, with law after law, and the only results we see are just more devious and less transparent means of funding campaigns. Why do PACs exist in the first place? Because of laws that restrict the ability of parties to raise money.

    If person or interest-group A is determined to give money to candidate or party B, and B is determined to take whatever money anyone wants to give them, then the money will change hands. All these “reform” laws have done is create new classes of middlemen to launder the money — thus making campaigning more complicated, and quite possibly, more dependent on money and moneyed, connected interests.

    The curent problem is not “money in politics;” it’s the fact that moneyed interests have the most effective messages and tactics, and their opponents (despite having hefty amounts of donor money themselves) can’t seem to hit a right note no matter what they do. Complaining about money whenever our side loses an election kinda misses some important lessons that the losers desperately need to learn.

  8. thomaspenn says

    I have become convinced that the influence of money in politics is the single most important issue today. It is the issue that underlies all the other issues, that so distorts the incentives in our political system that we are, for all practical purposes, no longer a democracy. Government is responsive primarily to the rich, not to the people.

    This. I would hold my nose and vote for a certifiably batshit candidate if I truly thought they would do something meaningful to reduce the influence of money in politics. Electoral reform focusing on campaign financing is by far the most pressing issue facing this nation.

    I think the terrible state of journalism is a close second, but the internet can really help there as long as monied interests don’t convince congress to destroy net neutrality or pass bullshit like SOPA or PIPA.

    An additional note, this is the reason I can’t support Gary Johnson. Ed’s mentioned him a couple of times, and I checked out his website and he had this in his Internet and Technology Issues section:

    Government should cease subsidizing or giving favorable treatment to Internet service providers and content-creators. ‘Net Neutrality’ leads to a government role in the Internet that can only lead to unwanted regulation.
    The FCC should not be allowed to create rules regulating content, Internet speeds, and pricing for services. The government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in the content marketplace. The Internet should remain independent, accessible and market-based.

    If there’s a way out of the mess we are currently in, it’s through open access to the internet. I absolutely cannot support someone who would jeopardize that.

  9. slc1 says

    Re Raging Bee @ #8

    One reason why the campaign reform legislation has been ineffective is that much of it has been neutered by the Supreme Court, which, in turn has been packed by the likes of Reagan, Bush 1, and Bush 2 with right wing goat fuckers like Thomas, Roberts, and Alito.

    Re Ed Brayton

    The US Government is the government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich and always has been. Nuff said.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    slc1 @ # 10: The US Government is the government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich and always has been.

    With various partial exceptions, such as the presidencies of both Roosevelts and one Johnson.

    Note that in each case, it took both inside-the-system reformers and angry mobs in the streets to push through the changes that averted massive upheavals.

  11. says

    Blaming lack of education and “low information voters” instead of the gazillions of dollar now being pumped into the political system seems like a poor excuse to do nothing, if you ask me.

    First, you would have to prove that even highly educated voters who are up on some of the issues (no person has the time to be up on all of them) are not swayed by political advertising. But there is ample evidence that this is not the case, not least the amount of money companies spend advertising their wares to such people.

    Of course, having a better education population might take some of the lunacy out of the picture, like creationist education bills, but the vast majority of the corporate money would remain, and all the problems that Ed outlines with it. And no amount of voter education can prevent representatives from being bought while they remain dependent on those dollars to run their re-election campaigns.

    It is simply naive to think that we will ever have an electorate that will uniformly reject candidates who eat at the corporate trough in the numbers necessary, even if alternatives are available. At best you would get people decrying the amount of money spent by the opposition while conveniently ignoring the millions being spent by their side. (c.f. the Tea Party.)

    Most countries, even the most education ones, severely limit the amount of money involved in the political system (at least compared to the USA) by severely limiting the opportunities to spend it. Denmark, for example, bans all political TV ads and restricts the election season to just a few weeks. Just those two measures alone takes as much as 90% of the spending out of the system, and that’s even with Denmark having much looser reporting standards — anonymous donations are still allowed.

    The solutions are there, but the First Amendment, as it is now interpreted, appears to all but rule them out as viable solutions in the USA. But at some point, Americans are going to have to face up to the fact that the Constitution is just about worthless if it cannot prevent the country from being run by people who sell their services to the highest bidder.

  12. says

    I think it’s great that the Republicans get to test out the new rules on their primaries. How do they like the fact that Gingrich is basically funded by one guy? I’m guessing not so much.

    I agree that campaign finance reform is THE issue, especially if you lump in offers for lucrative private sector jobs after a congressperson retires from office. It’s not just buying elections, but buying actual votes after a person is elected.

  13. Chiroptera says

    tacitus, #12: But at some point, Americans are going to have to face up to the fact that the Constitution is just about worthless if it cannot prevent the country from being run by people who sell their services to the highest bidder.

    Well, the US Supreme Court has already ruled that the Constitution doesn’t guarantee the right of innocent people to not be executed, so, yeah, the Constitution is becoming pretty much worthless on lots of levels.

  14. eric says

    tacitus @12:

    Blaming lack of education and “low information voters” instead of the gazillions of dollar now being pumped into the political system seems like a poor excuse to do nothing, if you ask me.

    I agree. Which is why my last paragraph begins with the word “while.”

    Of course, having a better education population might take some of the lunacy out of the picture

    I’d call that a win. If we never reach ‘zero dollar influence,’ I think ‘less dollar influence’ is a perfectly fine result.

    And let’s face it, money spend on a better educated populace has lots of other benefits; its not like its a waste of time just because it can never lead to perfectly rational voter behavior.

  15. says

    slc1: Is there any evidence that such laws were having a beneficial effect before they were “neutered” by the Supreme Court? I have not seen any.

  16. says

    “I have become convinced that the influence of money in politics is the single most important issue today. It is the issue that underlies all the other issues, that so distorts the incentives in our political system that we are, for all practical purposes, no longer a democracy. Government is responsive primarily to the rich, not to the people.”

    Monetocracy anyone?

  17. says

    I remember reading an interview in Salon with the then-chairman of the Federal Election Commission (1999 or 2000 IIRC); in which he said that any given campaign requires a certain minimum of money to be viable. (The amount depends on the specific campaign, of course.) Once you get that minimum amount of funds, he said, you’re in and you’re viable, and you’re perfectly capable of getting yourself heard, even if your opponent is outspending you by a huge margin. Additional money always helps, of course, but it’s not as important as how you use the money you have. I’m not sure if he was right, but I do think it’s a plausible point worth discussion. Superior funding does NOT predetermine success — at least not as much as incompetence or poor ground-game predetermines failure.

    Romney and Gingrich benefit greatly from the money they get, of course, but they also benefit from good organization and messages that are skillfully tailored to elicit the right response at the right time. That advantage over the Democrats is far more decisive, and far more dangerous, than their money advantage. Campaign finance is a real issue, but it can often be a distraction from more central issues.

  18. says

    Raging Bee:

    On the other hand, I’m sort of thrilled to see the duopoly threatened.

    SuperPACs helping candidates to fight for the ability to lead one of the two parties is a threat to the duopoly? What color is the sky in this guy’s bubble-verse — brown? Is he actually trying to pretend that Republican superPACs, organized to support Republican candidates, are anything but Republican organs?

    Before I comment on this, an honest question: Do you think that only Republicans are using SuperPACs or that SuperPACs are only advocating for Republican candidates and issues?

  19. says

    Ed, what the hell do we do about this though? Campaign finance laws seem to have a long history of not working, and I’ve started to lean towards thinking we should say “screw campaign finance reform” and just publicly fund campaigns.

    Also: better funding for congressional staffs, so legislators aren’t relying on lobbyists to know WTF is going on.

  20. flex says

    Chris Hallquist beat me to it. I’m not as bothered with campaign finance reforms as I am with the lack of sufficient staffing for congressmen. The elimination of the Office of Technology Assessment, by Newt, eliminated a non-partisan resource which congress could, and did, use to ensure they were informed on technology issues. Bring that office back, and create additional publicly funded (to reduce corporate bias), non-partisan (professionally neutral, evidence-based reasoning), offices staffed with experts in each field. Require that most, if not all, of the reports provided by these offices to be available to the public to peruse.

    Big donors and corporations donate big money to candidates to ensure they listen to their lobbyists. If another source of information is available to the congressmen, the ability of lobbyists to influence congressmen is reduced. Especially if the information provided by a corporate lobbyist is in direct contradiction to the information provided by a group professionally required to remain neutral. It is easy for a lobbyist to make the claim that a citizen’s interest group is a minority of their electorate. It is a bit harder if the same opinion is held by a professional neutral office that congress is paying for.

    Which isn’t to say that no congressmen would be influenced by lobbyists, or that lobbyists won’t exist. But the current ability for a congressmen to listen to the lobbyists they prefer, and use the arguments provided by only those lobbyists, would be somewhat compromised.

  21. Ace of Sevens says

    blockquote cite=”TCC”>Before I comment on this, an honest question: Do you think that only Republicans are using SuperPACs or that SuperPACs are only advocating for Republican candidates and issues?

    I don’t see how that’s implied by his argument. Republican Super PACs are part of the Republican machine and Democractic Super PACs are part of the Democratic machine. Neither is any threat to the two-party system.

  22. Ace of Sevens says

    Ugh, forgot to preview.

    Before I comment on this, an honest question: Do you think that only Republicans are using SuperPACs or that SuperPACs are only advocating for Republican candidates and issues?

    I don’t see how that’s implied by the argument. Republican Super PACs are part of the Republican machine and Democractic Super PACs are part of the Democratic machine. Neither is any threat to the two-party system.

  23. robertfaber says

    The subject of issue ads always reminds me, here in Michigan, about the proposed new bridge that would more directly link I-94 with Canada’s 401. It would make traffic flow a lot more smoothly through a border that carries 25% of all US-Canadian freight, by rerouting it out of downtown Windsor as the Ambassador bridge currently does. The republican governor wants the bridge, as do all the democrats, and business likes it too because it cuts their transportation costs.

    There’s only one problem. The Ambassador bridge is privately owned by billionaire Matty Maroun, who doesn’t want to lose his trucking and duty free fuel monopoly (whereby he saves 60 cents a gallon on his costs and passes a few cents to his buyers). So he runs issue ads telling people to call not just the governor, but their state senators to kill it. Every time I hear “paid for by the Detroit International Bridge Company” I hear “paid for by the guy who owns the only bridge”.

    This is another example of how the “state and local governments are closer to the people” us a lie. Sure, they’re more proximate, but they can be bought on the cheap. Maroun actually got the bill tabled simply by threatening to run or running a few hundred thousand dollars worth of cable ads targeted at vulnerable state senators. Pretty good investment to protect a $2 billion monopoly.

  24. says

    TCC: I said nothing of the sort; I merely pointed out that PACs and superPACs are not independent of parties, and do not represent any “threat” to the “duopoly.”

  25. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Ugh.

    The problem ISN”T THE PARTIES.

    The problem is that the parties are entirely bought & paid for. That’s why the parties are so close on so many issues. Having SuperPACs does nothing to solve the problem of parties being bought & frickin’ paid for. The people with money will make sure the legislators know who bought the air time hackin’ on their opponent…but they won’t disclose to the public, oh, no, because that would force these shy, shy people to break their anonymity!!!

  26. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @ Nathan, #17:

    The word you are looking for is

    “Plutocracy”.

    as in “Pluto” who was the god of the underword, which, yes, was the land of the dead, but it was also where gold and gems come from. Thus Pluto was the god of money, wealth, & riches.

    This term has been in use a long, long time. Better to use it than try to throw “moneyocracy” around.

  27. exdrone says

    Crip Dyke @28 wrote:

    “Plutocracy” – as in “Pluto” who was the god of the underword, which, yes, was the land of the dead, but it was also where gold and gems come from. Thus Pluto was the god of money, wealth, & riches.

    No, “Pluto” the Disney character, as in – the current electoral system is both cartoonish and a dog’s breakfast.

  28. says

    Ace of Sevens: Hence why it was an honest question rather than an out-and-out accusation. There are elements in what I quoted that led me to the question (especially “SuperPACs helping candidates to fight for the ability to lead one of the two parties”), but on a second reading, I can see it more charitably.

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