You know something’s gonna get done when The Daily Show and Republicans hate the same thing. At last night’s Republican debate in South Carolina, there was what initially appeared to be a moment of lucidity when Mitt Romney called for the end of Super PACs. Seems like a great idea. Nearly all the candidates have been victims of Super PAC funded ads stretching the limits of credulity, and doing away with the groups across the board would be a huge plus not only for them but for electoral discourse in general.
But the willingness to reform or get rid of Super PACs isn’t necessarily cause for optimism when you look at some of the alternatives. In the post debate Spin Room, Romney said the following (skip to 2:18 for the relevant tid bit):
This whole idea that there are these organizations out there that run ads that we as candidates…can’t tell them what to do and what not to do. It’s an outrageous setting and it makes us all uncomfortable.
Here, Romney is mainly taking offense at candidates’ inability to coordinate with Super PACs rather than the unlimited funds at their disposal. Assuming legislators reflected this emphasis, reform could possibly focus just on giving candidates more control by loosening rules around collusion. The problem is that once you allow some forms of cooperation and exclude others, the line between campaigns and the groups supporting them becomes impossibly vague. As a result, Super PACs could evolve into functional arms of candidates’ campaigns in practice if not in name.
Alternatively, legislators could snuff out Super PACs all together. Also in FOX’s spin room, Newt Gingrich implied just that and recommended that instead candidates themselves should be able to accept unlimited donations (skip to 3:18).
If we had a very simple law that said, “Anyone can give any amount of after tax income to a candidate as long as they report it that night so that everybody knows who’s financing who, you would clean up 90% of this. Because if a candidate had to put their face and name at the end of an ad, it would clean up most of the really bitter and miserable stuff overnight.
Although Gingrich is right that greater accountability would “clean up” a bunch of the current vitriole, he would be doing so at the expense of completely obliterating campaign finance restrictions. In his view, donations like Sheldon Adelson’s $5 million cash injection into the Gingrich-friendly Winning Our Future Super PAC would go directly into his own campaign coffer and spent at his discretion. Even if legislation limited donations over a certain amount to ads, a campaign finance environment like the one Gingrich has in mind could enable the ad budgets of entire campaigns to be financed by one person or by one corporation - they’re people too now, remember.
The real danger here is that the debate over campaign finance regulation will focus on high profile Super PACs instead of the Supreme Court decision that ushered them into existence, Citizens United. Any attempt to reform or eliminate Super PACs that ignores the fundamental problem of unlimited donations allowed in the name of “free speech” could result in regulatory regimes not disimilar to the ones put forth by Romney and Gingrich. Unless Citizens United is overturned, the obvious reform (restricting the size of donations) is off the table. Any limit on donations would be an infringement on that donor’s right to free speech. As a result, much reform might simply cause these funds to spill further into the electoral process.
It seems pretty clear that Super PACs as they currently exist are not long for this world. Of course we will see some pushback from those in favor of stricter campaign finance laws that will result in slightly better regulation. But if we get stuck focusing on treating the symptoms (Super PACs) instead of the disease (Citizens United), “Mitt the Ripper” will be the least of our worries.