Inquirer Editorial: Super Tuesday for super-PACs

Posted: March 04, 2012

Now it's the turn of voters in Super Tuesday's primaries to see how dangerously close the powerful super-PACs are to owning the political process.

In January, the super-PACs hit a milestone by outspending the candidates in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary on advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts.

The supers are not allowed to coordinate with candidate campaigns, but that is a sham rule. The big PACs don't have to worry about coordination because they are controlled, founded, or funded by friends or former consultants to the candidates.

Created, in part, by a pair of dubious Supreme Court rulings, super-PACs are rapidly evolving, almost like science-fiction movie monsters. In a sign of their adaptive abilities, super-PACs are now the money buckets of choice for wealthy individuals who have maxed out on the $2,500 in couch quarters that they're allowed to give presidential candidates.

Individuals are limited and corporations are prohibited from giving direclty to candidates for a good reason. The more money given to a candidate, the more the candidate owes the donor. But the public has little knowledge of this relationship, even when disclosure is required.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the super-Pacs have spent $29 million to benefit Mitt Romney, $14 million on Newt Gingrich's campaign, and $5 million to help Rick Santorum.

Super-PACs are so infrequently required to disclose donors and spending that voters didn't know their true influence in this election season's early primaries until after the dust had settled.

The big PACs' more troubling siblings, so-called "issues advocacy" organizations, don't have to disclose donors at all. By the time the pair of funding mechanisms completely engulf the process, it may be too late to prevent elections from being controlled by sinister donors.

But everyone knows vampires and giant cockroaches don't like the sunlight, so it's good to see that Congress is considering a disclosure bill. Good corporate citizens, the kind that proudly declare their support for civic causes, should have little to fear from the bill. But entities trying to hide their true intents should.

U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) introduced a bill requiring the super-PACs and shadow groups to disclose donors and spending every 24 hours on the Web. The groups' TV ads would have to list the top five donors, and a PAC's chief would have to show his or her face in the ad.

Even better, corporations and unions would have to detail their political spending to stockholders and members.

Van Hollen's legislation is simple. It merits strong bipartisan support and rapid passage. If it fails, voters may surmise that some secretive groups may already own their representatives.

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