By Robert Schlesinger |
A funny thing happened on the way to the Iowa Caucuses. The debate about the shadowy tactics of big-spending super PACs took a sharp turn.
When Newt Gingrich called Mitt Romney a liar for saying he had nothing to do with the attack ads that an anti-Gingrich super PAC aired in Iowa, he moved the discussion away from a partisan debate on campaign finance reform.
Here was Gingrich, a self-proclaimed conservative's conservative, illustrating one of the chief "liberal" complaints about super PACs—that there is an alarming lack of transparency that allows these "independent" groups to spend tens of millions of dollars raised from donors who can remain completely anonymous.
While super PACs are prohibited from coordinating their spending with candidates, it raises eyebrows when a candidate's top staffers or trusted advisers end up running a super PAC that spends millions on that candidate's behalf.
Political spending by outside groups has blasted through the stratosphere in the last four years, going from $69 million spent during the hotly contested 2000 Bush-Gore presidential campaign to $304.6 million in 2010, a midterm election year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But what's really troubling is that unlike their predecessors—political action committees—the super PACs—with positive-sounding yet ambiguous names—are not required to disclose their funding or spending. Voters should know who the people, companies, and unions are behind the ads flooding the airwaves and their mailboxes. Americans should know who is trying to wield influence over their political system.
At the Project On Government Oversight, we're especially concerned that corporations that receive billions of tax dollars through government contracts can influence future administrations by anonymously pouring millions into campaigns.
President Obama is considering an executive order that would require contractors to disclose their political activity. While the executive order wouldn't address all of the transparency shortcomings of super PACs, it's a good start.
The U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010 firmly established the right of corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on political advertising.
Yet, often overlooked is that when the court handed down its split Citizens United decision, it also reaffirmed the need for disclosure of spending.
Barring a dramatic shift in the makeup of the court or a longshot constitutional amendment, we may have to find a way to live with super PACs, but ignoring the need for disclosure is making a mockery of our elections.
About Danielle Brian Executive Director of the Project On Government Oversight
Robert Weissman President of Public Citizen
Jennifer Marsico Senior Research Associate at the American Enterprise Institute