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3Qs: Super PACs changing landscape of U.S. politics


Super PACs, the independent expenditure-only political action committees that support but cannot coordinate with political candidates, have reshaped political campaigns since the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission in 2010. We asked Richard Arenberg, a political science lecturer in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, to explain how Super PACs are reshaping the political landscape.

How have Super PACs changed political campaigns since the Citizens United case?

It has been almost exactly two years since the Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission on a 5-4 vote and the damage to our political process from that decision and the v. FEC decision that followed is still unfolding. It is clear already that the twin equations of corporations equaling people and unlimited independent contributions equaling free speech have distorted, if not corrupted, the campaign finance system.

Super PACs are able to raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and individuals and are able to spend huge sums in support of or to attack specific candidates. All of this throws our political campaign fundraising nearly back to the pre-Watergate days of brown paper bags full of cash. Undisclosed (in any timely fashion) and nearly uncontrolled funds from special interests and gigantic corporations, multinational in their nature, distort political campaigns. Aggressive and negative assaults made by Super PACs on opponents on behalf of candidates relieve the candidate of accountability for the ad. Romney, for example, claimed that he could not tell Super PACs supporting him what to do without violating the law. Even more alarming than the spread of shadowy negative attacks is the inevitable rise in influence that the enormous contributions by individuals, unions and corporations will foster.

Though candidates themselves are not allowed, do campaigns and outside stakeholders collaborate or strategize with Super PACs?

Almost without exception, Super PACS involved in the 2012 campaigns are formed and are led by former staff, fundraisers and associates of the candidates. While it is hard to know specifics about whether actual direct coordination is taking place, the legal fiction that these are “independent” entities is obvious to even casual outside observers.

Presidential candidates benefitting from multi-million dollar ad buys, many of whom are on record supporting Super PACs, wring their hands and bemoan the effects on the campaign of expenditures – frequently even larger than those made by the campaigns themselves – by these “independent” entities. The result of this charade is a deepening of public cynicism about the political process. Comedian Stephen Colbert has highlighted the hypocrisy by staging a mock presidential campaign benefitted by his Super PAC brilliantly named the “Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC.”

What are the chances that Congress would pass new legislation to scale back the influence of Super PACs? What factors would influence such a decision?

While Congress is never quick to address campaign finance reform, there are incremental measures Congress might take, like strengthening disclosure requirements that would restore some level of accountability for the public to see. However, the Supreme Court’s decisions limit Congress’s options. Aside from a change of heart by the Court or a change in its makeup, the main option to reverse the decision is an amendment to the Constitution. This, of course, is a long and difficult process requiring two-thirds votes in both the House and the Senate and then ratification by three-quarters of the states. Without strong and prolonged public demand for action, prospects for such amendments are dim.

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