Sen. John McCain worked tirelessly a decade ago to achieve a long-desired reform of campaign finance law, working with another Republican and two Democrats to win approval of one of the last, big bipartisan policy bills Congress has passed. Under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, no longer could corporate and labor special interests make massive, unlimited "soft money" donations to political parties. Corporations and nonprofits could no longer pay for "issue ads" that were really meant to advance a candidate's campaign, and the ads would have to be properly identified as electioneering efforts if they were broadcast close to an election. [Subscribe to U.S. News Weekly, now available as an iPad app.]
Now, McCain is the last original sponsor of the landmark legislation who is still in Congress; Democratic Rep. Marty Meehan has retired, and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold and Republican Rep. Chris Shays both lost re-election bids. And McCain is alone to watch with sadness and furor the unraveling of his hard-fought campaign finance overhaul. Following legal and rules changes, campaigns are facing the unbridled power of the super PAC, a type of committee that is virtually unregulated in the amount of money it can raise and how it can spend it to advance campaigns for both Congress and the White House. "The U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates for all kinds of money from these groups," says McCain. "I just wish one of the justices had had to run a political campaign." Had the jurists been through that experience, McCain says, they might never have undone the progress Congress and federal election regulators have made since the early 20th century to control the influence of big money in politics.
Super PACs were enabled by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That 5-4 decision said the conservative group Citizens United could run a film critical of onetime presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and could advertise the movie in broadcast ads featuring Clinton's likeness. The ruling overturned the McCain-Feingold ban on corporate and union funding of electioneering ads, and paved the way for a slew of other special interests to spend unlimited cash doing the same thing in future elections. [Read the U.S. News debate: Is Citizens United hurting democracy?]
And the onslaught has already started: According to the Federal Election Commission, more than 100 groups have organized as super PACs, and such groups reported spending more than $65 million in the 2010 election cycle alone. Most of the groups are identified as conservative-leaning (former George W. Bush aide Karl Rove's project, American Crossroads, is the biggest), but more left-leaning groups are likely to organize and raise cash to re-elect President Obama, protect the Democratic majority in the Senate, and take back the House, says Anthony Corrado, a professor at Colby College in Maine and a specialist in campaign finance. [See which Senate seats the GOP is targeting in 2012.]
Alarmed campaign finance reform advocates worry about the explosion of super PACs because now special interests have been provided a legal way to get around entrenched campaign finance limits and laws: They can raise unlimited money—from anonymous sources, if the cash comes via a nonprofit organization. The super PACs can also pay unlimited amounts for "independent expenditures," and collect unlimited cash from corporations, nonprofit groups, and labor unions, which would not otherwise be allowed, under the law, to make direct contributions to a campaign. The super PACs, then, have more freedom to raise and spend than the men and women seeking office. "They're a very dangerous [force] in the system, because they're dealing with unlimited money and corporate wealth," says Fred Wertheimer, president and founder of Democracy 21, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that supports campaign finance overhaul. "I don't believe they will take the campaigns away from candidates as a general proposition. But they will have important influence in targeted races."
Michael Beckel, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, says the super PACs are blazing "new territory" that effectively undoes McCain-Feingold. "They now have the freedom to say pretty much whatever they want, whenever they want, and pretty much as loudly as they want," Beckel says.