Super PACs Raise Millions but Distort Political Process

Political-action committees are great ways to raise money, but are they just legal ways to buy elections?

Getty Images

The people are the fountain of all power. That's what James Madison argued at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. But fast-forward to today: The power of the people is being perverted. The job of elected leaders is to deliver results that represent the interests of the citizens who placed them in a position of authority with their voice, their vote. But these days, money talks louder.

A whopping $26 million was raised in the first half of this year by independent groups known as "super" political-action committees, according to Federal Elections Commission filings. That $26 million is more than candidate Barack Obama raised in his home state of Illinois, and more than John McCain raised in Arizona, Texas, and South Carolina combined—over an almost two-year period before the 2008 election.

Though 91 super PACs reported receipts at the end of July, just five groups accounted for $22 million of that haul, according to the Sunlight Foundation:

  • Restore Our Future $12.2 million
  • American Crossroads $3.9 million
  • Priorities USA Action $3.1 million
  • American Bridge 21st Century $1.5 million
  • Majority PAC $1.1 million

Super PACs may raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations, or unions to advocate for or against political candidates. They may also spend unlimited funds, though they may not coordinate with or contribute directly to a candidate's campaign. And they are required to regularly disclose their donors. Or are they?

Super PACs can avoid disclosing donors by contributing funds raised to 501(c)4 organizations; these nonprofit "social welfare" organizations are not required by law to reveal their donors. During the midterm elections, five super PACs attributed all or nearly all of their contributions to nonprofit organizations.

Of the five 2012-campaign super PACs noted above, only Restore Our Future, organized by supporters of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, is not affiliated with a sister nonprofit.The dual-structure affiliation of super PACs and nonprofits is currently legal, but it's an end run around the voice of the voter, and the potential for corruption is great. Big corporations, big unions, and wealthy individuals may once again have unlimited influence on elections and officeholders. This was the reason "soft money" donations to the political parties were banned in 2002, and the ban affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2010. More transparency and disclosure are still needed in our campaign-finance system to protect the integrity of not only our elections but also our system of governance."The American people ought to know where millions and millions of dollars in our campaigns are coming from," said former Obama adviser David Axelrod in October 2010, "whether they are supporting Democrats or Republicans.

"Transparency is what we need in the political system. What we don't need are special interests spending millions of dollars in these campaigns, to influence these campaigns, never owning up to it, but having more muscle in the Congress than they already have."

I agree with David. But sadly, the three Democratic-supporting super PACs above—including Priorities USA Action, organized by former Obama aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney—are all following the dual-structure model mastered by the leader of the pack, American Crossroads, founded by Karl Rove, former chief of staff to George W. Bush, before the 2010 elections.

The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works in the areas of campaign finance and elections, political communication, and government ethics, has filed a petition with the Internal Revenue Service, arguing that existing IRS regulations permit these 501(c)4 groups to make far more campaign expenditures than is allowed by the Internal Revenue Code, and requesting that the IRS issue new regulations that better enforce the law.

Says Trevor Potter, founder and general counsel for the center: "There is no one perfect system. Things change, and the system needs to adapt. The problem now is the system isn't adapting. There is no legislative response to the lack of disclosure."

But there needs to be. The people need to be heard. The real problem with the current system is that it gives enormous power to special interests and reduces the power of the people. The campaigns become contests between interests like the Chamber of Commerce and labor unions, rather than a contest of ideas between candidates.

I don't fault Karl Rove or Bill Burton for trying to maximize advantage for their respective parties by making use of the system and laws that are in place. It would be strategically stupid not to. I blame the system and the laws.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Unfortunately, because the system is designed to keep power in power, Congress will never reform itself when it comes to campaign finance. And that is why more and more voices are suggesting an end run around Congress.

By invoking Article V of the Constitution and going the route of state constitutional conventions, we the people can take the lead on this issue and other fundamental reforms to which Congress has proved itself institutionally allergic.

Sure, it's a long shot. But it may be the only way to restore democracy and return power to the people.