Are Super PACs Good or Bad for Democracy?

Last week, Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson said he might give as much as $100 million to Newt Gingrich’s campaign after taking criticism for giving approximately $21 million thus far. Billionaires like Adelson are able to give so much money because of “Super PACs” which are Political Action Committees (PACs) that have no limit on donations and also allow for anonymous donation, but have no direct link to the candidates. Adelson is giving his money to the Newt Gingrich Super PAC called Winning Our Future which, independent of Gingrich, can use their funds to run advertisements or anything else they find helpful to Gingrich’s cause.

Super PACs arose after the 2010 Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Committee, which said that corporations could donate to political candidates because of free speech, and Speechnow.org vs. Federal Election Committee, which states that individuals cannot be limited in how much they donate to corporations because of free speech. Many were not pleased with this decision because it has paved the way for billionaires like Adelson and George Soros to funnel as much money as they please into campaigns both publicly and anonymously.

Super PACs have changed the political game. Mitt Romney’s Super PAC, “Restore our Future,” has raised almost $40 million and Newt Gingrich’s “Winning our Future” has raised $13 million with another $10 million expected from Adelson soon. These PACs are not attached to the candidate and therefore can run negative ads attacking the other candidates without the repercussions that might accompany the ad if it came directly from the candidate himself. The effects of negative campaigning and advertising have often been debated, but some suggest while voters continually claim to be annoyed by negative advertising, the emotional effect that they have may trump their conscious effort to disregard negative ads.

If we take into account that negative ads are effective and that Super PACs are more likely to run negative ads than a candidate is because they are not held accountable for the accuracy or negativity like a candidate is, then Super PACs are not good for democracy. That is not to say that the idea behind them is not good for democracy.


Photo Credit: OpenSecrets

There are really three solutions to the Super PAC problem. We can put limits on political donations completely, make anonymous donations illegal, or lift individual campaign spending limits to candidates. Lifting individual campaign spending limits or raising them would allow people to donate however much they want to a candidate without needing to go through a Super PAC. This is very popular among the elite and among Republicans, but many argue that this would leave a few billionaires with too much political influence as the system we have now does. But, if we only allow individual donations with a name attached to the donation, there is no room for corruption. If Newt Gingrich became president and helped out Adelson, it would be very clear what was happening because Adelson has declared his donations.

Nancy Pelosi was on The Colbert Report yesterday pushing for the DISCLOSURE Act, which would require businesses to disclose their political spending and still allow Super PACs. Right now, through creating multiple Limited Liability Corporations (LLC) or through anonymous PACs (501(c)3 or 501(c)4), it can be near impossible to trace where some of this money going into a candidate’s campaign is coming from. But businesses are not happy with this solution because they worry that if consumers know what party or candidate their company supports, it might turn away possible consumers and affect their profits.

As the election continues to move on and get closer, Super PACs will have an increasing role as they continue to run advertisements and raise money for the candidates. Because of the large amounts of coverage that Super PACs are receiving, campaign finance laws will definitely be reevaluated following this election.

Weigh in: Are Super PACs good or bad for democracy? What changes could be implemented to make Super PACs more transparent?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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