Don’t Fret Over Super PACs

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

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29 Responses to “Don’t Fret Over Super PACs”

  1. #1 |  Tritone | 

    “It’s always been legal for rich people to spend what they want… billionaires don’t need Super PACs to get their message out… ” So basically, “don’t worry about it, campaign finance was broken to begin with.”

    “As long as Super PACs don’t coordinate with candidates…” Oh, PLEASE. How many of these Super PACs are run by former staff members and/or close friends of the candidates? They don’t need to coordinate because they already know everything they need to to make effective ads for them. Furthermore, this grants the candidate some level of plausible deniability and distance from the negative campaigning, “hey, *I* didn’t say Candidate X drinks the blood of Christian babies–it was the NON-COORDINATING SUPER PAC!… that just happens to be run by my former campaign manager.”

    “It’s time to recognize the only way to stop creating new loopholes is by ending the always ineffective laws designed to lower the cost office seekers need to spend to buy our vote.” Right. Gotcha. It’s impossible to win the fight, we might as well give up. Oh, well, we tried!

    I have libertarian leanings, and truly value freedom of speech, but it seems almost everyone agrees there should be SOME limits on free speech, e.g. yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre, libel, slander, etc. So why not limits on free speech when it comes to the corrupting influence of money on politics?

    Campaign finance reform, to me, is one of the essential problems of our contemporary democracy. It’s a complicated, nuanced issue that has to be considered not just from the perspective of an ideology like libertarianism, but also practically on the negative effects it has on our democracy.

    If someone here can present a rational argument for why these millions and millions of dollars being spent by corporations, billionaires and unions alike DOESN’T distort the democratic process, I’d certainly be willing to change my mind on the issue. I’m young and have a lot to learn, and would like to hear opposing arguments.

  2. #2 |  crzyb0b | 

    Nick Gillespie gives the “party line” on super pac’s. His statement that the super pac’s are out side the party apparatus is total and utter BS. And he knows it.

  3. #3 |  Radley Balko | 

    So why not limits on free speech when it comes to the corrupting influence of money on politics?

    Because it inevitably presents itself in a way that forbids criticism of politicians and elected officials. Which, if we’re going to rank forms of speech on their importance to a free society, ought to be at the very top of your list of protected speech. I mean think about it. Campaign finance reformers want to make it a criminal offense to criticize elected officials. And they think these restrictions should be most stringent at right around the time the public is deciding whether or not to re-elect them.

    Yes, you can still go to your local street corner with a bullhorn and criticize Senator Sleazeball. But if you want to be heard, you need to money, whether it’s to buy ads, produce a documentary, print pamphlets, or create a web video. This is why speech and money are inseparable. The politicians certainly know that if they restrict money, they restrict the ability of anyone to effectively criticize them.

    So why not limits on free speech when it comes to the corrupting influence of money on politics?

    For one, there’s little evidence that money actually changes votes. Second, you’re question begging. I could put the same question this way: Why would we want to restrict the ability of citizens to criticize elected officials in a way that allows them to be heard?

    Keep in mind, we’re no longer talking about campaign contributions. We’re now talking about private groups spending their own money to criticize politicians. That’s what you want to restrict. Where do you draw the line? Should newspapers (most of which are corporations) be forbidden from publishing favorable editorials about particular candidates? Should blogs? If you think there should be a media exceptions, who gets to determine what is and isn’t “media?” And what about advocating a particular policy, instead of a particular candidate? Lots of people who complain about the influence of money in politics, for example, cite the influence of non-profits funded by wealthy benefactors. But non-profits only discuss policy — they already barred from endorsing a particular candidate or piece of legislation. Do we restrict them too? In what way?

  4. #4 |  crzyb0b | 

    “Why would we want to restrict the ability of citizens to criticize elected officials in a way that allows them to be heard?”

    Because the money elevates a select few voices over all others. Air time (which belongs to the public) is limited, the space on the first google search page is limited – and campaign finance laws allow a small number of points of view to drown out all others. Resulting in oligarchy, not democracy.

    You are right that the money doesn’t change votes, but that is not the problem, the money elects politicians who are known in advance to vote in specific ways. Its just as bad.

  5. #5 |  mad libertarian guy | 

    What you silence by ridding politics of Super PACs are the voices of everyday people like me and you.

    For the very first time in my voting life, I have the ability to pool my meager resources with those who are like minded and spread a political message that WE control. Not the media. Not the political establishment. Normal people.

  6. #6 |  greenback | 

    What you silence by ridding politics of Super PACs are the voices of everyday people like me and you.

    Yes, free speech now can flow from us peons like water through a garden hose. Unfortunately the current state affairs grants the elites access to the Hoover Dam. There are two tiers of free speech now, and that kind of tier-effect is criticized heavily in this forum (“police officer doesn’t go to jail and doesn’t lose his job”).

    I have mixed emotions about this issue. Back in the old days, and apparently in countries that have restrictions on campaign financing, political communications were/are dominated by big media. Think Rupert Murdoch or WR Hearst. That was not and would not be healthy here. In addition our government is not particularly good at the kind of complex regulation that would be necessary to shut down all the loopholes.

    At the same time, letting the current system play out is a guarantee for crony capitalism across all industries with established corporations. I can’t see how anybody would view a political system favorably when campaigns are financed in massive quantities by the Adelsons of the world.

    I’m coming to the conclusion that the best hope is to make big media irrelevant.

  7. #7 |  greenback | 

    And, yeah, that line about everything being kosher because the Super PAC isn’t coordinated with the politicians’ official campaign is pretty damn cynical.

  8. #8 |  crzyb0b | 

    Carefully crafted public financing: Every candidate for congress would have to raise 5000 $5 contributions (your own money not allowed) – after that they receive X dollars for their campaign. All broadcast stations (as a condition of licensure) would have to provide a certain amount of air time to each candidate. Media companies can’t be owned by non-media entities (GE can’t own NBC). 3rd party issue ads that mention or depict a candidate by name trigger equal dollars to the candidate.

    Imperfect, but much more democratic than what we have now.

  9. #9 |  Highway | 

    That’s the most perverse definition of ‘democratic’ I’ve ever heard.

  10. #10 |  Radley Balko | 

    All broadcast stations (as a condition of licensure) would have to provide a certain amount of air time to each candidate.

    What do you mean by “each candidate?” Each candidate for president? Each candidate for every political office? Also, do they have to provide time for every candidate from every political party, or just the two major parties?

    And do cable TV stations count as “public airwaves?” Because they really aren’t, right? How about Internet radio stations? Satellite radio? Ads on YouTube? Ads on blogs? Ads on Hulu videos?

    Also, Citizens United wasn’t about the public airwaves, it was about a documentary that was distributed other ways. Same with the anti-Romney documentary everyone is upset about. So what’s your plan there? If I post a viral video attacking or supporting a candidate on my site, does that count as a contribution? If it’s an attack ad, how do you determine which candidate to whom to allot my contribution? What if it isn’t a video, but a post in which I say nice or mean things about a candidate? Would this mean I’d have to stop posting about a given candidate once I’ve put up enough posts equivalent to the financial value (who determines that?) of the limit on campaign contributions?

  11. #11 |  EH | 

    crzyb0b is italian

  12. #12 |  JSL | 

    crzyb0b, having seen whats gone on with public campaign financing in Portland Oregon, I’ll pass on it anywhere else.

  13. #13 |  Xenocles | 

    “Air time (which belongs to the public) is limited…”

    Well there’s your problem! Air time belongs to the broadcaster. Or are you telling me that I can expect a check for my share of the Super Bowl ad revenue?

  14. #14 |  MikeZ | 

    So would that idea actually change anything? Consider the current race, wouldn’t it just cause a pile of Romney money to flow to Gingrich who would in turn pour that money back to the Romney campaign. It’s not like anyone is running negative ads for the low funded candidates. I’d almost say it would be more likely that Paul runs an attack ad vs Romney/Gingrich than the other way around. If that is the case wouldn’t this add to the problem rather than solve it?

  15. #15 |  MikeZ | 

    Come to think of it it really wouldn’t even be Romney/Gingrich trading money. I live just outside new hampshire and for all the ads I saw it was the “Obama is Bad” from Romney where presumably he wouldn’t have to pay Obama anything since Obama isn’t running in the republican primary. However Romney’s rivals are running more negative ads. So your just giving more funding to the frontrunner.

    Seems like even if this was a problem I don’t think it is a solvable one.

  16. #16 |  Tritone | 

    Mr. Balko,

    Thank you for laying out your viewpoint so lucidly. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. Here are a few points I’d like to address.

    “Because it inevitably presents itself in a way that forbids criticism of politicians and elected officials”

    I’ve lived abroad for most of the past 3 years and when I do come back to the US I am lucky enough not to live in a battleground state (Maryland). So I haven’t really seen any of the Super PAC ads. But somehow I’ve managed to hear plenty of criticism of almost every politician.

    “Campaign finance reformers want to make it a criminal offense to criticize elected officials.”

    That’s an overgeneralized way of putting it. They want to make it a criminal offense for SPECIFIC groups (unions, corporations) to criticize elected officials in SPECIFIC ways (campaign ads, Super PACs). I, for one, see that as a reasonable limit.

    “But if you want to be heard, you need to money, whether it’s to buy ads, produce a documentary, print pamphlets, or create a web video.”

    Money itself isn’t the problem, it’s the sheer volume of money being pumped into the system. It seems like the lion’s share of Super PAC money goes to just one of the things you mentioned–buying television ads. If there were, e.g., an outright ban on political ads on TV (I believe they have such a law in the UK), there would still be documentaries, pamphlets and web videos. But I have a sneaking suspicion that none of those alternatives require nearly as much money as buying hours upon hours of TV ad time.

    “For one, there’s little evidence that money actually changes votes.”

    I find it very hard to believe that unions and corporations are donating their money to Super PACs out of a sense of civic duty. It seems more likely that they are attempting to buy votes for their candidates of choice. It seems like they’re smart enough to know if they are wasting their money or not. In other words, the Super PAC donators, at the very least, believe their money can change votes.

    “Keep in mind, we’re no longer talking about campaign contributions. We’re now talking about private groups spending their own money to criticize politicians. That’s what you want to restrict. Where do you draw the line? Should newspapers (most of which are corporations) be forbidden from publishing favorable editorials about particular candidates? Should blogs? If you think there should be a media exceptions, who gets to determine what is and isn’t “media?” And what about advocating a particular policy, instead of a particular candidate? Lots of people who complain about the influence of money in politics, for example, cite the influence of non-profits funded by wealthy benefactors. But non-profits only discuss policy — they already barred from endorsing a particular candidate or piece of legislation. Do we restrict them too? In what way?”

    Honestly these are all great questions, and I have no answers to give. At least for now.

    Thanks again for your thoughts on the subject.

  17. #17 |  DarkEFang | 

    If we want to get rid of the influence of money in politics, then voters need to start doing their homework before they vote. If people actually knew the candidates, their stances and basic policy information, the spending by PACs, parties and politicians would have little impact.

  18. #18 |  Ben Fenton | 

    Love the blog, Radley.

    A few things bother me about yours and Reason’s approach to this issue.

    To begin with, you use words like “freaking out” and “bellyaching” to disparage people who are genuinely concerned about elections and campaign finance.

    The Points
    1. “Rich people don’t need SuperPACs”- So your point is, more money separating the average person from participating as an equal in politics is a good thing? Really? I think democracy works best when the best ideas are what makes it to the top of the market of ideas, not simply the person or organization with the most money. And to say that SuperPACs will somehow let you or I participate as equals to those who have, say, ten million dollars to spend is laughable. Have you really thought this through? I’m a regular person. If I don’t have a million bucks to spend on a SuperPAC, and if I spend 40 hours a week making ends meet rather than fundraising, how do SuperPACs help me have a voice in democracy?

    2. Nobody cares about point number two. Nobody. Run all the negative ads in the world, please, they’re fantastic entertainment and great propaganda. It’s an art.

    3. The third point is absurd. SuperPACs absolutely do not take power away from the parties and put it in the hands of the people. It puts it into the hands of those with $$$. Period.

    It blows my mind that civil libertarians just don’t get this issue, especially seeing how much corporatists and unions stand to gain from this. Please put some real thought into this, instead of just doing whatever the opposite of liberals/leftists do and insulting their intelligence. (I’m a libertarian of sorts.)

  19. #19 |  Radley Balko | 

    And to say that SuperPACs will somehow let you or I participate as equals to those who have, say, ten million dollars to spend is laughable.

    No one is saying it lets you participate as equals. What they do is allow you to pool your resources with people who think like you, or who are concerned about the same cause as you. The Colbert Super PAC proves the point. He’s getting donations from thousands of people. Not one or two. As the video says, millionaires don’t need Super PACS.

    Nobody cares about point number two. Nobody.

    You’re flat-out wrong. Politicians and media routinely cite negative ads as the reason we need campaign finance reform. The Swift Boat stuff in 2008 had people screaming for new regulations.

    The third point is absurd. SuperPACs absolutely do not take power away from the parties and put it in the hands of the people. It puts it into the hands of those with $$$. Period.

    No, they don’t. The power is already in the hands of people with money. Again, super PACS allow you to pool your resources with like-minded people.

    Please put some real thought into this, instead of just doing whatever the opposite of liberals/leftists do and insulting their intelligence.

    Given that you’re simply wrong in a number of your assertions, you can spare me the condescension about how little thought I’ve put into this. You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about.

    You can also spare me the bullshit about reflexively taking whatever side opposes the left. Disagree with me all you like. But don’t assume you know my motives. I agree with, collaborate with, and promote left-oriented people and organizations all the time. On most of the issues I cover regularly, in fact. I happen to be on this side of this issue because I believe in free speech. And I find it fairly terrifying that there’s a growing movement that wants to criminalize criticism of elected officials. I also happen to be on the same side of this issue as the ACLU. So really. Fuck off with your assumptions about how much thought I’ve put into this issue, or why I take the position I do.

  20. #20 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    If you people are going to put your faith in democracy (for some very good reasons I admit…even if I don’t agree), then I want certain rights and freedoms. Rights and freedoms which happen to be consistent with several widely supported documents establishing rights and freedoms.

    What I don’t want is shit like campaign finance reform that infringes on rights because someone doesn’t like the game results.

    Most Americans seem to have a most bizarre hatred of money that they’ll slaughter every ideal they supposedly have to eliminate all advantages of money. Did you earn some money? Too bad! Your kids must suffer as the poorest of the poor do…to be fair…oooh a new iPad!

    Just admit you hate money!

    Media companies can’t be owned by non-media entities (GE can’t own NBC).

    So much wrong here.

  21. #21 |  crazybob | 

    ““Air time (which belongs to the public) is limited…”

    Well there’s your problem! Air time belongs to the broadcaster. Or are you telling me that I can expect a check for my share of the Super Bowl ad revenue?”

    This is false. The broadcast spectrum belongs to the public. Period. The public leases it out to the broadcaster, so yes, a share of the Super Bowl ad revenue comes back to the public in the form of the license fees.

    THe public leases out these portions of the spectrum because it is considered in the public interest to do so. Shouldn’t it be used to further democracy?

  22. #22 |  crazybob | 

    “What do you mean by “each candidate?” Each candidate for president? Each candidate for every political office? Also, do they have to provide time for every candidate from every political party, or just the two major parties?”

    Simple: Each candidate who meets some threshold of popular support in their respective riding. For example collection of 10K signatures or 1K $5 donations. Air time would be proportionate to the general interest: say divided by the total number of voters in particular election. Federal and statewide elections would get the most, local races the least.

    Your rhetorical questions aren’t all that rhetorical.

  23. #23 |  EvilDevilCuckoo | 

    I swear Radley, that your father has to be Winston Wolf – Time and time again I see people try to snipe at you and your response is like watching a cat bat around a rubber mouse. I guess it helps that your on the right side of every issue I can remember, but it’s still great to watch. I also really get a kick out of people calling you a cheerleader for either Team Red or Blue ( I guess that’s stock and parcel libertarian insult, we’re just closet _____ ). Anyone that reads you for more than say one paragraph should see pretty clearly you’re no fan of either party. It’s still pretty entertaining to watch someone come at you with lame platitudes and just get pwned (or served).. i guess in this case either verb works equally well.

  24. #24 |  crazybob | 

    “No one is saying it lets you participate as equals. What they do is allow you to pool your resources with people who think like you, or who are concerned about the same cause as you. The Colbert Super PAC proves the point. He’s getting donations from thousands of people. Not one or two. As the video says, millionaires don’t need Super PACS.”

    Correct – i millions of concerned citizens pool our resources, we can have sort of equal access as one billionaire pushing some misbegotten policy. That seem right to you?

  25. #25 |  Ted S. | 

    Big Government has massive power to *uck up people’s lives. (I’ll let you put the letter or letters of your choice in place of the asterisk.)

    It therefore logically follows that people will go to great lengths to ensure that Big Government is *ucking up somebody else’s life.

    The solution is most emphatically not to give Big Government more power to *uck up people’s lives, which is what campaign finance “reform” laws do.

  26. #26 |  Ken | 

    Pretty much all the things that people seem to be worried about came about because of all the attempts to limit free speech, not in an atmosphere of free speech. Nearly all the ads people are most concerned about came from small groups such as Citizens United or the Swift Boat Veterans. The whole “stopping moneyed interests from dominating” narrative is simply cover for politicians to do exactly what Radley points out: forbiding criticism of politicians and elected officials.

    Additionally, the constitution is pretty clear with clause “congress shall make no law”; let me reiterate: “NO LAW”!! So unless an amendment is passed changing this clause (none have been passed yet), then all all laws passed by congress are unconstitutional.

  27. #27 |  crazybob | 

    “The solution is most emphatically not to give Big Government more power to *uck up people’s lives, which is what campaign finance “reform” laws do.”

    Campaign finance reforms are necessary to limit the power of big government that has brought to you by the current system where the wealthy use their power to buy a bigger government to enrich themselves.

  28. #28 |  Ken | 

    Campaign finance reforms are necessary to limit the power of big government

    HAHAHAHAHAHA!! To contain big government we need to give more power to the government, especially the power to limit speech! What could possibly go wrong? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!

  29. #29 |  Endless Mike | 

    Radley –
    It’s good to see more hard-core progressives from HuffPo coming over to your blog. Although I agree with your response to Ben Fenton, I think you would gain more with a little less caustic of a response.

    As a recovering conservative, I sympathize with the very difficult and emotionally painful process that is applying the principles of liberty even when they butcher sacred cows that have a lifetime of worship invested in them. The changing of hearts and minds is an ongoing process, and usually occurs AFTER the discussion/argument, not during.

    For example, I imagine the one of the best argument’s against crazybob (who has obviously given this issue a lot of thought) will be when he re-reads his convoluted, expensive, heavy-handed, and ultimately ineffective (Air waves? Do you think ANYONE is going to be watching TV or listening to radio with rabbit ears in 10 years? Why do you think the FCC is so determined to get control of the internet?) “simple” plan.

    As always, I am a big fan.

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