Op-Ed: Super PACs Endanger Our Democratic System

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Super PACs and electioneering nonprofits provide the very wealthy with disproportionate political power, argues a government affairs lobbyist who will be speaking at a local forum about money and politics.

Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate billionaire who spends more than any other individual to influence elections in both the United States and Israel, recently was quoted as saying that Israel would not survive as a democracy. “So Israel won’t be a democratic state,” he added. “So what?”
 
Adelson’s nonchalance toward the value of democracy signals danger for representative government in the United States as well. Since the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2010 Citizens United decision, which paved the way for unlimited corporate spending in elections and no limits on contributions to super PACs, wealthy special interests have found their election money   vastly elevated in importance. 
 
Before Citizens United, political action committees expressly advocating the election or defeat of federal candidates couldn’t accept donations in excess of $5,000 per year. Today, PACs that make independent expenditures may accept unlimited funds from corporations, unions and individuals.
 
This new avenue of political power is not lost on Adelson and his wife, who donated $93 million to super PACs in the 2012 elections, making them the biggest political donors in the world. 
 
Granted, corporations and the very wealthy have found another avenue besides super PACs for using their money to influence elections: “dark money” electioneering nonprofit groups, which are not required to disclose their donors. In fact, these electioneering nonprofits, like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, are the preferred avenue for corporations that do not want to be seen by consumers as partisan. 
 
Both super PACs and electioneering nonprofits provide the very wealthy with vastly disproportionate political power over our elections and, in turn, our government. But there is a keen difference between the two that makes super PACs more potent and more dangerous to the integrity of elections.
 
While super PACs and other outside electioneering groups have received the nod from the Supreme Court to escape limits on donations if they make campaign expenditures “independent” of candidates and parties — if they are truly independent, the court reasoned, then large donations to these outside groups do not go into the pockets of candidates and thus there is no danger of corruption — super PACs tend to be super-connected to the candidates they support.
 
Super PACs usually are created by former campaign workers, colleagues or friends of a candidate. They frequently share the same campaign vendors, consultants and pollsters of the candidates they support. Candidates and party leaders can even fundraise for “their” super PAC. 
 
Even more telling of the coordination between super PACs and candidates is that super PACs tend to support only a single candidate. According to Public Citizen, in the 2012 presidential election, almost half of all super PACs — 49.3 percent — supported a single candidate. When combined with super PACs aligned with party committees, 65 percent of all super PAC spending supported a single candidate or party committee. In the 2014 congressional election, 45 percent of super PACs spent all of their resources on a single candidate. 
 
Super PACstend to be wed to a specific candidate or party committee. So a million-dollar donation to, say, Jeb Bush’s super PAC is a million-dollar donation to Jeb Bush. (Bush has asked donors to give no more than $1 million for the time being; otherwise, it could look unseemly.)
 
There are only a few wealthy donors who can afford to play this game. The Center for Responsive Politics found that the majority of super PAC money in both the 2012 and 2014 elections came from just 100 donors. Within these ranks is a handful of mega-donors who command the attention of every serious presidential candidate, like Adelson for the Republicans and Tom Steyer for the Democrats.
 
Big Money appears to be taking its toll on the rest of us. Even though the 2014 congressional midterm election was the most expensive in history, the actual number of reportable donors giving more than $200 shrank along with voting turnout.
 
As our elections grow increasingly expensive, largely financed by a small cadre of wealthy individuals and corporations campaigning hand-in-hand with their candidates, an indebted government will likely be the result. If we do not roll back the damage of Citizens United and check the power of Big Money in elections, I fear our democracy will soon be in dire risk.
 
Craig Holman is a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. He will be speaking at “Money + Politics: Does Money Make Policy?” the topic of the third annual Bernard Wolfman Civil Discourse Forum. The event, free to the community, will be held on April 8, at 7:30 p.m., at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park. Sponsored by the Jewish Exponent, WHYY and The Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, the event will feature the authors of these opinion pieces and will be moderated by WHYY’s Chris Satullo. For information or to register, visit: www.civildiscourseproject.org
 

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