Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders agree: Super PACs are bad.
In a speech to Liberty University students last year, before Trump had even become the Republican candidate, he expounded, “We have to do something about Super PACs. Because Super PACs are now running the country. Gotta get rid of Super PACs. Really, really, really bad.”
“Because Super PACs are now running the country. Gotta get rid of Super PACs. Really, really, really bad.””]
And in an interview Sanders gave long before he lost the Democratic primary to Clinton, he said that “a major problem of our campaign finance system is that anybody can start a super PAC on behalf of anybody and can say anything.”
When Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump agree, it must be true. But what is a “Super PAC” anyway, and why are they so bad — “really, really, really bad”?
Super PACs and Citizens United
A Super PAC (the PAC stands for “political action committee”) is merely a group of citizens who pool their resources to try to elect a certain candidate. Super PACs are prohibited from contributing money directly to candidates, but they can spend as much as they want to communicate with the American public.
Although you’ll often hear Super PACs described as “secret, unaccountable money,” in fact Super PACs publicly disclose all of their donors and all of their expenditures over $200.
(There are organizations, such as the Rifle Association, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters, that do disclose their political spending, but not the names and personal information of their members and donors. These organizations, called 501(c)(4)s, make up about 3 percent of all political spending in federal elections, and, like Super PACs, are heavily regulated.)
Historically, individual Americans were always able to spend as much as they wanted on elections. But beginning in the 1970s, the Federal Election Commission interpreted the law to limit the ability of citizens to work together.
Thus, it was perfectly legal for Jane Smith to spend $25,000 to try to convince you to vote for her preferred candidate, and legal for John Smith to spend $25,000 to do the same. But if the two sat down and said, “let’s pool our resources and do this together,” the law limited each of them to spending no more than $5000. What kind of logic was that?
Then in 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals held that this restriction violated the First Amendment. At about the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in the famous case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that corporations could spend money to voice their views, too, meaning that Super PACs could accept corporate and union contributions as well as individual contributions.
In fact, however, the overwhelming majority of Super PAC money — about 90 percent — still comes from individuals.
Of course, some people have more money to spend on politics than others, and therefore, not surprisingly, most Super PAC money comes from people with lots of money. And that money is used to turn out voters and to campaign for candidates.
Life without Super PACs
Is it really, as Senator Sanders claims, “a major problem … that anybody can … say anything” about any candidate? What would democracy look like if the government could prohibit citizens from saying certain things about certain candidates?
That idea brings us back to President Trump. Trump, recall, was outspent by many of his rivals in the Republican primary. His campaign was also heavily outspent by Hillary Clinton in the general election. Add in spending by Super PACs, and the pro-Clinton forces outspent the Trump camp by more than 2 to 1. What can we learn from this?
First, money doesn’t buy elections. You have to have a message and a candidate that resonates with voters.
money doesn’t buy elections”]
This emphasizes a second point — candidates bring different strengths and weaknesses to the campaign. Trump, thanks to his long career in business and entertainment, began the campaign with name recognition that was unmatched in the Republican field, except possibly by Jeb Bush.
And Trump’s ability to spend his own money on his campaign was a huge advantage — while other candidates were fundraising, Trump could simply write a check. Thus, the existence of Super PACs actually equalized things.
If Super PACs had been abolished, that would have hurt Trump’s opponents. To the cynic, it should be no surprise that Trump remains critical of them.
However, there is reason to believe that Trump’s criticism is not so cynical after all. While he continues to criticize Super PACs, those who listen closely to him will notice that his criticism is not of people’s right to spend money per se, but of the fact that they are forced to use Super PACs rather than simply do what Americans could legally do right up until the 1970s — contribute whatever they wanted directly to candidate’s campaigns. At an impromptu appearance just days before his inauguration, Trump stated,
I think we ought to straighten out the PACs — right, folks? I think they should be able to give to a campaign and expose it and everything. But I think this PAC stuff — maybe we can get it straightened out, because it’s a little ridiculous.”]
Trump seems to recognize that the problem with Super PACs is not that people can spend what they want to talk about politics, but that the regulatory system still makes no sense. Why not allow people to contribute directly to campaigns, and do away with the FEC’s 500 pages of complex regulation of political speech? If Trump can do that, he’ll do democracy a great service.
Meanwhile, for those of you already certain you’ll want to defeat President Trump in 2020, here’s a question: Do you want to give government the power to limit how much people can spend to try to defeat President Trump?