Why Super PACs Are Good for Democracy

Wealthy super PAC donors make politics more competitive.


In the two weeks before this month's Super Tuesday primaries, The Wall Street Journal reports, "outside political action committees supporting the Republican presidential hopefuls spent three times as much as the candidates themselves." Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) says 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. In both presidential and congressional primaries, these independent groups, funded mainly by wealthy individuals, have increased 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 2010 decisions by the Supreme Court and a federal appeals court seem to have encouraged such activity by explicitly recognizing a right to pool resources for independent expenditures. 

Critics argue, as Price did in U.S. News last month, 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 allow rich people to dominate the discourse and dictate electoral outcomes—has not transpired. To the contrary, super PACs have made races less predictable and more interesting, giving a boost to 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 recently told Slate's David Weigel, "and Santorum would have probably had to drop out after Iowa. Gingrich might have had to drop out after South Carolina." 

Super PAC donors like billionaire investor Foster Friess (a Santorum supporter) and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (a Gingrich fan) have 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 LBJ in 1968, before Congress imposed limits on campaign donations.    

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

The New York Times reports that the Campaign for Primary Accountability is making politicians "nervous" and "increasing Congress's sense of insecurity." As evidence, it cites Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), who 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 could 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 reports. Can it really be that in America politicians just have to let people criticize them?

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

© Copyright 2012 by Creators Syndicate Inc.