PACs and Money on Democracy

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Paul Blumenthal, reporter for the Huffington Post and former senior writer for the Sunlight Foundation, discusses the proliferation of PACs coming out of the GOP, big labor, and even Facebook. 

Twenty months after the Citizens United case opened the floodgates of money into campaign finance through the role of PACs and super PACs, the new role of secret money is taking on an unprecedented role in the electoral process. Monday, the giant internet company Facebook launched its own FBPAC. Blumenthal said this is but a taste of things to come.

I think it shows users of Facebook, which seems to be almost everybody, that this isn’t just a website where you go to talk to your friends. It’s a giant corporation with a lot of interests, and a lot of those interests are being challenged and fought over in Washington, and that’s through lobbying and campaign contributions.

For a company like Facebook, which has a largely Democratic employee body, a super PAC is a way for them to spread the money between the parties, so as to avoid appearing partisan.

Which is sort of what happened to Google, and why you see Republicans pay a lot of attention to bashing them over net-neutrality or other issues, because they’re the third-biggest contributor to President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Unlike in the past, when PACs were generally a general election phenomenon, this cycle PACs are already playing a large role in primaries, supporting specific candidates. Rick Perry, for example, has his own PAC, called Make America Great Again, run by his former chief of staff, which plans to raise $55 million dollars to fund Perry’s run just in the primary.

They all have sort of these innocuous awesome names about how great America is.

He said this type of spending is the real change, pointing out that the Karl Rove-linked group American Crossroads didn’t come close to spending as much in the 2010 elections, though they still “spent a ton of money” and he called this new level of spending "a ridiculous amount" for an independent group. American Crossroads and their affiliated nonprofit, which Blumenthal referred to as “a shadow Republican Party,” are planning on raising and spending $240 million—about a third of what a political party normally raises, but an enormous amount for an independent group.

While candidate money tends to be divided among several different areas, super PAC money mostly goes to television ads, though some will also be spent on direct mailings and other efforts to get the vote out. Blumenthal said that most of those ads will likely be negative.

It’s going to be really hard for anybody in the country to avoid seeing these negative ad campaigns from groups called, you know, Americans for a Greater America, on any show or Saturday morning cartoons.

The question now is, will all that advertising have any effect? Studies show that negative advertising works, but Blumenthal is unsure that even more negative advertising would translate into greater effectiveness. Yet he thinks effectiveness is unlikely to matter much.

It makes people feel like it’s working, and it certainly gets money into the hands of consultants who run these kind of operations, so I don’t think they’re going to slow it down depending on the facts of what works and what doesn’t.

Interestingly, negative ads to tend to carry more content about real issues than positive ads, which are mostly just pretty shots of the candidates looking heroic and compassionate.

Blumenthal said the process isn’t unfair for candidates competing against each other with possibly different sized PACs, the process is instead unfair to voters, whose role in the election becomes diminished.

You have these unlimited contributions that are going to these less accountable organizations that are not technically allowed to legally coordinate with the candidates, but you know, it’s sort of obvious what they’re doing here. The candidates will know that if they get elected thanks to $10 million from some home builder or some hedge fund manager, they’re going to know where that money came from, and they’re going to know who to thank. If the public is concerned about $2,500 going to a candidate from a particular individual, then I think they should really be concerned about, you know,  millions of dollars.

Blumenthal said that Citizens United had the unintended consequence of increasing the court’s standing on transparency as an issue, with lower courts referring to the Supreme Court’s ruling, but he said the real effect of the case has been tor reduce disclosure in campaign spending.

It’s pushed campaign spending into super PACS which can raise money from non-profits, and nonprofits don’t have to disclose where they get their money, and it’s also pushed money into these nonprofit organizations that can now run electoral advertisements and don’t have to disclose where they get this money.

In the 2010 election nearly half of all outside spending was not disclosed to the public, as opposed to previous elections where around 90 percent was typically disclosed. Blumenthal calls it “a very vast change.”

The effect of more anonymous donations is that the public is left in the dark as to who is paying for the advertisements trying to influence them, trying to buy an election, and so we end up with candidates who can get elected to office thanks to a few hundred thousand dollars or a few million dollars injected into an election late by a nonprofit that is basically being hired as a mercenary by a corporation that can funnel money into it, say please run ads in this race, we don’t want anyone to know where that money comes from, and then when that candidate gets elected they can wind up  being pressured, and the public is not aware. They just know that another innocuous sounding non-profit talking about how great America is, doesn’t support this candidate.

Yet disclosure alone might not undo the effects of such enormous spending, as evidenced with the Swift Boat campaign that sank John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid by questioning his military service record. Those ads were known to be funded by prominent Republican political donors and disputed by nearly all of the veterans who served in the same vessel as the candidate, yet the allegation was enough to derail his campaign.

I don’t know if disclosure is necessarily going to stop this kind of spending, but it does keep the public informed and it provides some level of accountability, especially when you get to elected people actually working in their elected positions.