Super PACs, "Shadow Super PACs" And the Avalanche of Money


Super PACs are a blight on America's political landscape.  They provide a means for very wealthy individuals and corporate special interests to evade anti-corruption laws that have been on the books for decades. 

The courts have long recognized that large contributions to political candidates can corrupt and reduce public confidence in our democratic system.  So courts have upheld limits on how much individuals may contribute to candidates, as well as outright bans on corporate and union contributions to candidates.  But today, Super PACs are operating as de facto campaigns unrestricted by such limits.

Super PACs have the ability to both distort the political process and to affect the outcome of a federal election.  Super PAC spending buys access and influence for the Super PAC funders.

Some claim that because a Super PAC can't contribute directly to a candidate and can only make supposedly “independent expenditures,” there is no threat of corruption.  The reality, however, is that Super PACs work hand-in-glove with candidates’ campaigns.  For example, individuals running “Restore Our Future” ran Romney's campaign in 2008.  The brain trust behind “Priorities USA Action” worked at the Obama White House and the 2008 Obama campaign.  Further, candidates and their staff are permitted to be featured guests at Super PAC fundraisers.

Even more troubling is the growing number of “shadow Super PACs” that are funneling secret money into our elections.  These groups claim to be tax exempt 501(c)(4) “social welfare” or 501(c)(6) trade organizations, but are undertaking significant election-related activities.  Contributions to these tax-exempt organizations do not have to be disclosed under current tax law.  In essence, this new scheme is allowing corporations and individuals to evade disclosure of their electoral spending by laundering money through third-party organizations that do not disclose their funders.

Perhaps the best-known Super PAC, American Crossroads, is now having its fundraising eclipsed by its “shadow Super PAC” Crossroads GPS.   That entity was only formed after Crossroads founders Karl Rove and former Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie found that many of their biggest potential donors would only open their checkbooks if they could do so anonymously and not have their names associated with their attempts to buy election results.  But you can rest assured that the politicians benefitting from this anonymous largesse are fully aware of who is cutting the checks and for how much.   Only the public is kept in the dark in this equation.

The truth is Super PACs and “shadow Super PACs” empower the moneyed special interests in our political system and threaten to turn our democratic system into a plutocracy.  Claims that these groups promote free speech confuse the freedom to speak your mind with the ability to use vast resources of wealth to distort the process and to drown out the voices of average Americans.  Money and speech arenot the same.  The Supreme Court got it wrong in the Citizens United case, and we are now living with its unfortunate, troublesome consequences.

To help fight back against this avalanche of new -- often secret -- money, Congress needs to immediately pass the DISCLOSE Act of 2012 to ensure that voters know where the money spent on elections is coming from.  This information is critical to helping voters assess the message and the messenger.

A version of this opinion piece by Policy Director Meredith McGehee appeared in the June 2012 edition of The CostCo Connection.