Super PACs: Causes and Effects

May 29, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

Professor Bradley Smith has written an exceptionally succinct and well-argued case for super PACs.  This author of Unfree Speech: The Folly of Campaign Finance Reform does not neglect to cite “personal freedom” in defense of these organizations, but he challenges their critics on one other level: their effects on the electoral process.  He argues that super PAC spending improves turnout and competition, lessens the fundraising burden on candidates, and addresses other issues in the political system, such as the early primary states’ grip on the nominating process.   Whatever else one may think about all this money, he writes, we should see Super PACs as beneficial – – doing good things for the political process.

There are points of major interest in Smith’s presentation, which are found in both what he says and what he does not.

The Question of Effects: How much, in analyzing campaign finance reform, do critics of reform wish to lean on “effects.”   After all, reformers engage in just this type of analysis. They allege campaign money corrupts representative government, and they are regularly looking for evidence. They have to contend with the reply that they haven’t found the evidence, or that it is not conclusive, or that in compensating for its weakness, they are loosening the relevant definition of “corruption.”

Smith is attacking the reform position with a similar move, by arguing that the spending they are worrying about is an affirmative good.  And so he is inviting an argument about whether he’s right on the facts.  For example, is it true that Super PACs promote competition?  What definition of “competition” is he proposing to use?  And if his primary concern is personal freedom, does it really matter all that much whether he’s right or wrong about the benefits of this spending?

The Interaction of Campaign Finance with Electoral Structure: Smith points out that campaign finance cannot be divorced from other features of the electoral process.  He notes that “before Super PACs, if a presidential candidate didn’t do well in Iowa and New Hampshire, his campaign typically ended for lack of money.”  Now Super PACs can extend the life of those campaigns and give potentially strong candidates with weaknesses in those early states the opportunity to make their case before more favorable and certainly larger audiences.

One is reminded here of the former application of the state-by-state spending limits to the campaigns of publicly financed presidential candidates. The Iowa spending limit was calculated on the basis of its small population, as if its significance lay in the handful of delegates a candidate could win.  So this pivotal election, functioning effectively as a national primary, could be funded only within very narrow limits.  Candidates cheated like mad.  Eventually the limits were abandoned as pointless and unenforceable.  Along similar lines, one could take from Smith’s analysis of Super PACs and their relevance to early primary state competition that one answer to Super PACs is reform of the nominating system.  If there was an answer to what some (but not all) take to be the undue influence of Iowa, New Hampshire and other early state primaries, the role of Super PACs could lessen.   But, then again, perhaps not.

The Missing Equality Issue: Smith does not address the chief requirement for a successful Super PAC and the primary cause of the controversy.  He defines a Super PAC as “a group of people pooling their resources to support candidates for political office.”   This is true, but the description is incomplete.  The group of people is often more or less one person, or a larger but not substantial number, all of them distinguished by their possession of mammoth wealth.

And these wealthy people can move the political process in a particular direction by the sheer exercise of their financial power. In an age of intense discussion of social and economic inequality, the Super PAC appears to many to be a case in point—the same problem transposed to the political sphere.  Brad Smith does not speak to this question.

Within a few days of the Smith article, George Will added his voice to the view that Super PACs are “inevitable, reasonable, and, on balance, wholesome.”  He put his emphasis on the first two adjectives, “inevitable” and “reasonable”, because he sees these PACs as the response that should be expected to decades of misguided regulatory initiatives to limit money in politics.  Will is more guarded about effects, judging them good only “on balance.”   So in this article, which also cites Professor Smith on campaign finance reform’s follies, Will takes a perceptible step back from Smith’s full embrace of these PACs’ impact.  Here he seems to suggest that even an ardent opponent of regulating Super PACs may concede that the question of their effects is complicated.

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