In Defense of ‘Outside Groups’

Wealthy super PAC donors make politics more competitive.

In the two weeks before March’s Super Tuesday primaries, The Wall Street Journal reported, “outside political action committees supporting the Republican presidential hopefuls spent three times as much as the candidates themselves.” Writing in U.S. News, Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) said the “undue influence” of these so-called super PACs, which can collect and spend as much as they want as long as they do not coordinate with candidates, “strikes at the heart of our democracy.”

If so, super PACs are more like a jolt from a defibrillator than a dagger in the chest. These independent groups, funded mainly by wealthy individuals, increase competitiveness, which is usually considered good for democracy.

Rich people have always been free to spend their own money on political messages, either directly or (more controversially) through proxies such as 527 groups (named after a section of the Internal Revenue Code). But recent court decisions seem to have encouraged such activity by explicitly recognizing a right to pool resources for independent expenditures. 

Critics like Price argue that “outside groups shouldn’t be able to spend unlimited sums of money to hijack the marketplace of ideas and drown out other voices, including those of candidates themselves.” Note that Price identifies the people who talk too much as outsiders, as opposed to the insiders he prefers. The Supreme Court has rightly rejected this sort of reasoning, saying the First Amendment does not allow the government to mute the voices of some so that others may be heard.

In any case, the result Price fears —that freedom of speech will let rich people dominate the discourse and dictate electoral outcomes—has not transpired. To the contrary, super PACs have made races less predictable and more interesting, helping candidates who otherwise would have been crippled by a lack of money.

Even opponents of super PACs concede they have made the GOP presidential contest more competitive. “Take away the super PACs,” the Sunlight Foundation’s editorial director told Slate’s David Weigel in February, “and Santorum would have probably had to drop out after Iowa. Gingrich might have had to drop out after South Carolina.”

Super PAC donors such as billionaire investor Foster Friess (a Santorum supporter) and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (a Gingrich fan) enabled two of Mitt Romney’s opponents to stick it out despite his big fundraising advantage. Such patrons indirectly serve the same function as the wealthy backers who enabled Eugene McCarthy to mount his history-changing anti-war challenge to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, before Congress restricted campaign donations.  

There is even a super PAC officially dedicated to fostering competitiveness: the Houston-based Campaign for Primary Accountability, which supports challengers to entrenched congressional incumbents. So far this super PAC, whose main backers are three rich guys, has taken credit for the retirement of Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and the defeat of Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio).

The New York Times reports that the group is making politicians “nervous” and “increasing Congress’s sense of insecurity.” Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), for instance, complains that voters who once distinguished between Congress and its members are starting to realize the institution they hate is composed of the people they keep re-electing.

Incumbent representatives have a huge built-in advantage, routinely winning re-election at rates of more than 90 percent. Even in 2010, when the Democrats suffered historically large losses, the re-election rate was 85 percent. Yet the Times, sympathetic to the plight of anxious incumbents, evidently could not locate a single independent observer who thinks Congress would benefit from a bit more nervousness and insecurity.

“Members say there is little they can do to stop the onslaught of third-party activity,” the Times said. Can it be that in America politicians just have to let people criticize them?

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum is a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2012 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • sarcasmic||

    "Oh yeah? Well my super PAC is this big!"

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  • o3||

    since corporations = people...

    ...then why cant people give the same unlimited monies to a candidate?

  • sarcasmic||

    spending money on advertising != giving monies to candidate

    Thank you for playing, moron.

  • o3||

    not my question

  • sarcasmic||

    Your implication is that corporations can give unlimited monies to candidates while people can't, which is false.

    Why are you such a moron? Does it take practice?

  • ||

    They should be able to.

  • MOFO.||

    I dont think people are limited in thier ability to give to a PAC. I believe that giving monies to candidates is restricted for both corperations and people.

  • ¿Ex Nihilo?||

    ...then why cant people give the same unlimited monies to a candidate?

    You actually ask a good question, even if you didn't mean too. People should be able to do whatever with thier money, as long as they don't harm others in doing so.

  • ||

    I eagerly await the day that Obama walks out on to the debate stage wearing a Nascar jumpsuit covered in all of the logos of his well to do sponsors.

    What's that? Corporations aren't going to spend a shit ton of money for that kind of free advertising? But why ever not?

  • tarran||

    One amusing thing here is that what people are objecting to is what was supposed to be the way things were done when the U.S. was first constituted.

    Candidates didn't campaign overtly; it would be indecent.

    Their supporters were supposed to campaign for them, spending their own money without coordinating with the candidate.

    Many people who decry the fact that elections have become less about issues and more about image are the same ones that seem to be oblivious to the fact that this uncoordinated advocacy is what injects issues into the debate. After all, who is going to spend lots of money to say "vote for my guy, he has perfect hair!"?

  • JoshSN||

    But these people have absolutely no accountability, either.

    I mean, it is a simple fact that Col. (now Rear Adm.) Hoffman said Kerry's actions were a "shining example of completely overwhelming the enemy" and that it "may be the most efficacious method of dealing with small numbers of ambushers."

    Of course, when politics (and money) got into it, Hoffman said really shitty things about Kerry calling him a "loose cannon."

    Who is going to spend lots of money to tell the plain, honest truth that you could (hypothetically) get from any newspaper?

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), for instance, complains that voters who once distinguished between Congress and its members are starting to realize the institution they hate is composed of the people they keep re-electing.

    And on that day, the clouds parted, the heavens opened and God Himself spoke Jeff, saying "Yay, well done, my children, for you have finally gotten through your thick fucking skulls that when you send the same people back to Congress, the same shit will happen."

    Then they all had ice cream.

  • Adamsmith1776||

    "Critics like Price argue that “outside groups shouldn’t be able to spend unlimited sums of money to hijack the marketplace of ideas and drown out other voices, including those of candidates themselves.”
    So the best way to protect the marketplace of ideas is to make sure that no one other than the candidates can participate in that marketplace? By "marketplace of ideas" does he mean "incumbent's ideas"? I am not sure who is more of clown--price or anyone who gives credence to his argument.

  • JoshSN||

    So, if you are running for office, and doing so in the most moral way possible, and someone with a billion bucks decides "Fuck him" and starts running ads, ostensibly for you, which say things like "No one will do more to stop global warming than Adamsmith1776, absolutely no one," even though that's a complete lie, and you want the government to get away from doing anything to regulate global warming, and want the free market solution (i.e. unmitigated catastrophe).

    How is that the marketplace of ideas, rather than the poor being trampled by the rich?

    Like the Wyly brothers did in 2000 against McCain in South Carolina. They invented a group "Republicans for Clean Air" and did a 2.5 million dollar ad buy calling George Bush an environmentalist and used handsome pictures of him, and used bad looking pictures of McCain and implied he was a big polluter.

    That's not the marketplace of ideas, but that's what is happening. That's fraud, perpetrated on the American people, which you are standing up for.

  • Concerned Citizen||

    Is there any part of the 1st Amendment that liberals can tolerate?

  • R C Dean||

    The Establishment Clause seems popular on the left.

    Of course, the Free Exercise Clause, not so much.

  • Concerned Citizen||

    George Will was right when he said "The Left doesn't really care what you're doing, as long as it's compulsory."

  • 16th amendment||

    Rich people should be able to spend more. They know how to create jobs, create innovation. It's only right that we listen to them more. I mean, would you take advice on how to place and climb at 24 foot ladder from a bureaucrat? Entrepreneurs break down traditional barriers to women, gays, immigrants. They hire all these people, serve all of them. They would like to sell cars and such to illegal aliens, to hire them at will, open bank accounts easily, etc, but laws prevent this. Of course, we the voters are free to vote against the recommendations of the rich, but we ought to listen to them.

    And at best, they produce jobs in the media center by spending more there. So block out their ads, much as you block out ads on a google page, but then buy stock in these companies. BTW, I'm not recommending a buy on GOOG right now.

  • JoshSN||

    Middle class people create jobs, not the rich/entrepreneurs.

  • 16th amendment||

    Baloney.

    The video makes the point that the middle class create jobs in that they spend more and thus the rich hire more, not because the rich just hire more people like that. This is similar to the Keynesian idea of increasing demand -- ie. empowering the mass of people. And he says he should tax the rich more so that we can 'invest' in infrastructure like more schools.

    For that matter, you could say that the government creates jobs too because they created the schools, or gave out stimulus checks.

    Of course, with indirect reasoning you can come with any conclusion you want as to who creates jobs. You need to look at who hires you. You need to look at the direct cause.

    Second, the government has been spending gobs on money on education and other things. Adjusted for inflation we spend on education that at any time in history. Yet scores are low. Public salaries are at an all time high.

    Second, all these hand outs have spawned a dependent class, dependent on and addicted to government handouts to get by. Consider when you talk about how middle class wages have fallen. In fact, you can you government handouts like the child tax credit or food stamps, and then use the money saved to buy fun stuff like iPhones and pot.

    Obama is now spending about $1T or 33% more a year than when he took office. None of this has created jobs or empowered the middle class. Only the rich will do it once their uncertainty with Obamacare and such are eliminated.

  • JoshSN||

    Did you completely miss the main thrust of the argument, that hiring people is about the last thing any entrepreneur wants to do? If you can you squeeze more out of your existing workers, or you invest in technology (one time) to save a lot of money in the long run,.

    I'm not one of those people who thinks CEOs are evil, or that, most of the time, they want to lay people off, or outsource to completely unfree countries, but the logic is inescapable. CEOs don't hire people unless they have to.

    And, by the way, just so you know libertarians are way out there, even the top Republican economists are demand-siders. Where someone like Krugman might advocate spending programs, Mankiw and Hubbard advocate tax cuts... both actions to increase demand.

    You have a lot of other misinformation that has been given to you. Are American schools bad? Not at all. The latest international test, PIPA, put Asians educated in America in the #1 reading spot in the entire world and Europeans raised in America in the #4 spot, after Finland and Korea. American schools are failing black and brown students, but don't try to give me any fucking shit that "scores are low." It's a lie. You've spewed a lot of lies just now, but that one's easy to rebut.

  • wareagle||

    it's not that schools are simply failing black and brown kids, it's that they are purposely doing so. The education apparatus as it operates virtually guarantees that those students will fare worse every year.

    Their scores are weighed into the overall US mix, against those of relatively homogeneous populations abroad. And your reliance on Asians and Europeans who happen to have been raised here gives false praise to the education system.

    CEOs hire people because there is work to be done, and the perceived value of that work will be worth more to the organization that the salary and benefits being paid out. It is a truism that has nothing to do with either Keynesian economics or tax cuts.

  • JoshSN||

    I don't see how it is false praise. Nor do I see any guarantee that black and brown people will fare worse each year.

    Most people in America are of European descent. I was not relying on them to give false praise, I was talking about the norm.

    Nothing the CEO Hanauer said in his talk is contradicted by anything you said about when CEOs hire.

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    This is ALMOST(but, not entirely) complete horseshit.

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