As parties fade and candidates shrug, 'super PACs' drive campaigns

Published: Saturday, Jan. 28 2012 12:00 p.m. MST

Much vocal discontent centers on the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and unions to spend freely and provoked outcries from those who feel corporations would quickly dominate.

In fact, there is no evidence of any corporations entering the field, though a union is attacking Romney in Florida. Even if corporations did engage, UC-Berkeley's Cain said, the results would be doubtful: “If ballot initiatives teach us anything, it is that once a corporation becomes linked to it, it goes down.”

Then there remains the corruption concern, as voiced in the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Vallejo decision, which held that direct contributions to a candidate could corrupt an office-holder and therefore might override speech protections. To navigate the minefield, the court created two forks — one for contributions, the other for expenditures. It allowed Congress to regulate the contributions, but held that expenditures were protected speech.

The distinction was well intended, but structurally unsound. It came crashing down in 2010, as independent spending broke free. Today, there is a growing consensus that the corruption concern is best handled by full disclosure.

Where to from here? Ray LaRaja, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, feels the best way forward is to nudge money back toward political parties, since they must answer to voters over time. “Give the money to groups that have a brand name so that people can punish them,” he said. “Bring back soft money.”

Ilya Shapiro at the CATO Institute favors a strong disclosure regime combined with higher limits to candidates, allowing dark-horse candidates to get more traction while remaining responsible for their own speech. The classic illustration is 1968, when Eugene McCarthy shocked Lyndon Johnson in New Hampshire through heavy backing from a wealthy supporter, back in the days before campaign finance control.

Shapiro would raise the $2,500 limit per election cycle to $100,000 but with full disclosure, which he believes would allow better candidates to enter the race.

As things stand, he said, “the political system is less dynamic and more lawyered up.” Allowing larger contributions to candidates, he argues, would redirect energy now spilling over into unaccountable Super PACs.

For those keeping score at home, the answers offered so far are: disclose everything, allow higher limits to candidates, and return soft money to parties. One other option might simply be less government.

“Money flows into elections because the government is so big and powerful,” Keating says. “It rewards some interests with goodies, or punishes others with taxes or regulations. With so much at stake, people will spend a lot to persuade voters.”

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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