November elections are just a few weeks away and it’s becoming transparent that this year’s election will be overwhelmingly run by big money. All thanks to a Supreme Court decision in 2010, this year’s presidential campaign is unfolding in a never-before- seen wave of spending from wealthy donors along with Super PACs functioning as shadow fundraising arms of the candidates.
Mitt Romney has in his court a very active Super PAC, Restore Our Future, which shot down Newt Gingrich in the GOP race with their attack ads. President Obama has on his side Priorities USA that formed to keep up with its Republican counterpart in all the splurging of its financial resources.
According to the law, these Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate with the candidates or their campaign in order to prevent corruption. And so naturally, both candidates claim that they do not control what goes on in the offices of those committees when decisions are made on what ads to broadcast.
However, many people believe otherwise, especially when those heading these organizations once worked with the candidate. For instance, two former Romney aides, political strategist Carl Forti and election law attorney Charlie Spies, are the founders of Pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future. It’s a lot like when comedian Jon Stewart headed Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC to showcase the blatant connection these politicians are pretending don’t exist.
How these infamous Super PACs even came to rise was all due to two Supreme Court cases; Citizen United and Speechnow.org in the beginning of 2010. The decisions concluded that private donations (independent expenditures) from individuals, unions and corporations are not corrupt as long as they are not given to the campaign or candidate. It follows that if these independent expenditures are not legally corrupt, they cannot be limited.
This has basically reversed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) that McCain and Feingold had fought so hard to get through Congress back in 2002. The BCRA had previously banned soft money contributions, which were unregulated contributions to the national party organizations instead of the candidate’s campaign made to avoid the federal limits. The Act also required political advertisements to state what person or group paid for them.
Now with theses court cases, spending has been at an all time high especially during the 2010 House/Congressional races. Not only is there unlimited spending for the election or defeat of a candidate but there is also the issue of “dark money.”
Dark money is donations given to 501 (c)4 nonprofits that are associated with the Super PACs and it does not legally need to be disclosed to the FEC or public. This gives rise to speculation on how much money is still not being reported because it’s being donated to the affiliated organizations of the Super PACs.
The public should know the identity of the mystery donors that are funding negative ads for and against candidates–allowing us to make decisions on the influence of the special interests behind the ad. Super PACs do attempt to give disclosures of the donors that directly give to their committee, however it more often than not is always delayed and after the votes have been counted in swing states.
The media is in a uproar about it; the New York Times alone has published countless articles about how Super PACs are evil machines being pumped by the money of millionaires to get preferred candidates into office. Opponents of SuperPACs are saying that the general population will be swayed by these attack ads that take up huge TV time slots, and confused into believing often false or misleading accusations. These attack ads will twist and turn our perception of the candidate into a misconstrued understanding, just so the wealthy can get the candidate into office who will protect and advance their interests.
The on-going criticism of Super PACS has swayed public opinion. 70% of respondents from a general populace poll say they believe there would be less corruption if there were limits on how much money is given to Super PACs. There is also an alarming number of Americans who see the influence of Super PACs as a deterrent from voting this year–one in four Americans say that they are less likely to vote because big donors to Super PACs have so much more influence over elected officials than average Americans. Many people feel their voice is muffled by all the corporate stacks of money, so public perception is why even bother going to the polls.
The concept of Super PACs is fundamentally unfair to those private citizens who likewise have an interest but may not receive the same promotion that it deserves because of inadequate finances for advertising. Politics has always been run by money but prior to the 2010 court cases, there was a lot of progressive campaign finance reforms dating all the way back to 1907!
One way to level the field is for the FEC to overcome its bipartisan gridlock and issue more strict Advisory Opinions that can regulate Super PAC activities–before they get even more out of control in the election years to come.
Without a significant change in our campaign finance system, the influence of corporations, the American election process, and even the Supreme Court itself, face a long-term crisis of legitimacy.