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.