Remember when President Obama bashed the Supreme Court for its Citizens United decision that would "open the floodgates for special interests," but then encouraged supporters to donate to Priorities USA Action, a Super PAC run by two of his former aides during his 2012 reelection campaign? The Democrat’s reversal on Super PACs continued this week, when American Bridge 21st Century, an organization "committed to holding Republicans accountable for their words and actions," lampooned the Republican National Committee’s $10 million dollar plan to attract minority voters. This GOP soul-searching provided plenty of poke-fun fodder for the Super PAC, despite prior concerns among liberals that Super PACs would corrupt American elections.
Putting this hypocrisy aside, the acceptance of Super PACs is a positive development for two reasons. First, money does not guarantee electoral success. Second, Super PACs provide political speech that increases information available to voters.
In 2010, several court cases cleared the road for Super PACs. The Supreme Court held in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC) that political spending by corporations and unions is protected speech, and the U.S. Court of Appeals in DC broadened this protection by removing limits on contributions to Super PACs in SpeechNow.org v. FEC.
Predictions came immediately that the biggest spenders would effectively buy their candidate’s office. Some have tried to eliminate these speech rights by constitutional amendment, such as Move to Amend, a group that argues "money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights." They also charmingly argue that corporations are now "entitled by the U.S. Constitution to buy elections."
Yet, money does not guarantee electoral success. Super PACs must convince voters to support their candidate. Super PACs can fundraise and spend unlimited amounts to advocate for or against candidates, but cannot coordinate with or contribute to candidates. Voters are certainly exposed to Super PAC information, but voters decide if they are convinced and vote accordingly.
If money guaranteed success, Mitt Romney would be president. The Center for Responsive Politics reports Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney Super PAC, spent $142,097,336 on independent expenditures, which "expressly advocate the election or defeat of specific candidates and are aimed at the electorate as a whole." Priorities USA Action, the Obama-friendly Super PAC, spent 46% of that, or $65,205,743. Looking at the top 10 spending Super PACs for the 2012 election cycle, conservatives outspent liberals roughly $313 million to $148 million ... but with little effect. Democrats still control the White House and the Senate, Republicans control the House.
Super PACs provide expression protected by our First Amendment. As John Samples explains, the First Amendment would be "meaningless" if unpopular expression could be silenced. More importantly, Super PACs provide useful information to voters. The information might be negative, partisan, or even bizarre, but voters can consider all of this information and make up their own minds when Super PAC speech is protected.
Super PACs should not be demonized because voters, not money, decide who our elected officials will be, and Super PACs contribute to a more informed electorate by increasing political information. Judging by the use of Super PACs by both Republicans and Democrats, the value of Super PAC expression is something both sides can agree upon.