Unmask the super PAC donors.
It would make a great party game: Match the candidates to the mysteriously named independent political organization working on their behalf.
To save you some trouble, we've done the matching for you: Restore Our Future (Mitt Romney), Winning Our Future (Newt Gingrich), Make Us Great Again (Rick Perry), Endorse Liberty (Ron Paul), and Priorities USA Action (Barack Obama).
Confusing? That's probably how the organizers of these outfits like it. Two years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and labor unions could spend unlimited sums on political speech, it struck an important blow for free expression -- and ignited a firestorm of criticism. Now that the Citizens United ruling guides the flow of money, the Republican primary in South Carolina showed just how free expression could get. The results haven't been pretty.
A new breed of political action committees called super PACs, which maintain a pretext of independence from the candidates, inundated Palmetto State voters with negative campaign ads -- and outspent the candidates in doing so. A similar eruption has broken out in the nation's marquee Senate race, which is likely to determine whether the Democrats retain control of the upper house. Massachusetts incumbent Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, have both called for a halt to the third-party fusillade. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, two-thirds of voters agreed that the new rules on independent expenditures negatively affect the campaign.
Saturday marked the ruling's second anniversary, and the current campaign is the first presidential race to unfold since the decision changed the electoral landscape. Thanks to Citizens United and a later appellate ruling (in SpeechNow.org vs. Federal Election Commission), independent campaign groups are running riot. At last count, 286 super PACs had spent $33 million in this election cycle so far.
These groups are supposed to be independent, but they're sometimes run by people with past ties to candidates -- and often use legal loopholes to delay or avoid disclosing their donors' identity. The farcical nature of super PAC independence has been laid bare in exquisite satire by the comedian Stephen Colbert, who has launched his own super PAC with the all-too-credible name Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. To explore a run for "the president of the United States of South Carolina," Colbert has solemnly transferred control to fellow cutup Jon Stewart and taken to calling it the Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC.
Yet the dismaying consequences of the Citizens United ruling are no grounds for abandoning the free speech principles embedded in it. Super PACs have sprung up on both sides of the political divide, after all, and may ultimately cancel one another out. Besides, by opening up new channels for political communication and fundraising, the Internet was ushering in a new campaign world even before the Supreme Court did. The Citizens United ruling turbocharged the campaign arms race, but the remedy cannot be to infringe the constitutional right to free speech.
A better approach is to insist on complete and prompt disclosure. That's important so the voters know who is funding campaigns on behalf of elected officials, even (or especially) if those officials supposedly aren't involved with the "independent" groups attacking their opponents. Money may be speech, but it's also influence. And in the 2010 congressional elections, nearly half the $280 million spent by noncandidate entities was expended by outfits that masked their donors.
Last year, a weak disclosure bill was approved in the House but succumbed to a Republican filibuster in the Senate, where it fell one vote short. A new version is likely to be introduced this year. If it's strong enough, Congress should pass it. Making donors admit funding misleading attack ads might help defang them. Meanwhile, Colbert's satire has so much bite because savage parody and tragic reality are nearly indistinguishable.