Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2013, 2:45 pm

Editorial: SuperPACs, super problem

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The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus

On the strength of high-profile losses by candidates heavily financed by Super PACs, some say dark money must not be all that bad for politics.

Reformers like the folks at Illinois PIRG believe otherwise. In fact, in the wake of the recent $1 million-plus contribution to a Chicago congressional campaign by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's SuperPAC, that organization has ramped up efforts to jettison the Supreme Court decision that legalized contributions from these often shadowy, deep-pocketed groups.

It's hard to argue with the notion that piles of such money being spent in the race to replace ex-U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., soon on his way to federal prison, will do nothing to restore credibility to that office and, by extension, the person who holds it.

It's not just Bloomberg's Independence USA Super PAC which is likely to weigh in to influence the eventual winner.

That's why, Illinois PIRG state director Brian Imus said in an email this week, "We have to put Illinois on record against the Super PACs and megadonors and firmly in favor of the principle of one person, one vote."

PIRG isn't the only agency pushing for change, Mr. Imus said. "Already, 11 states and nearly 500 communities around the country have taken action. In Illinois, 12 municipalities like Chicago, Carbondale and Kane County have overwhelmingly passed resolutions calling on our legislature to act against the disastrous Citizens United ruling."

There are a host of reasons why that decision is harmful to politics. Many of them were detailed in a Feb. 15 Chicago Tribune op-ed written by U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., and Lawrence Lessig, a director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University and a Harvard law professor.

The pair urged Americans to reject the narrative that suggests losses by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and others in 2012 with strong SuperPAC support means we don't have to worry about big money corrupting politics.

"The real story goes beyond Election Day and is much more destructive than you know," they say.

The huge influx of cash means even more pressure on members of Congress to raise the huge sums of money necessary to combat those dollars. Consider just the race here in Illinois' 17th Congressional District.
According to, independent campaign dollars spent to oppose eventual winner, Cheri Bustos, totaled, $4,366,363.39, while the incumbent Rep. Bobby Schilling, whom she ousted, saw $4,069,889.90 in outside expenditures spent to defeat him.

The authors of the Tribune piece estimate that members of Congress already spend between 30 and 70 percent of their time fundraising. The threat of big SuperPac spending, which often arises quickly, without warning, means that even more time will be spent on the campaign trail.

"The casualty: less time to focus on real policymaking -- reading the material, weighing the arguments, drafting legislation -- and less time to build relationships with colleagues that create trust and the opportunity to broker meaningful compromise," the pair wrote. "A Congress addicted to fundraising is a gridlocked and dysfunctional Congress." It's hard to imagine a Congress that will perform worse than this one.

Big spenders expect something for their money and candidates, dependent on those dollars, will find it hard to resist accommodating them with the next SuperPAC-fueled election just around the corner.

Rep. Sarbanes and Professor Lessig say it's not just a single lawmaker who is corrupted, but the entire system. "The torrent of outside money only increases the fear factor for members of Congress, which is yet another invitation for moneyed, special interests to step up with the resources that besieged candidates desperately need to fight back. Little wonder then that, when it comes time to make public policy, the institution often leans toward special interests and away from the public interest."

And don't think the public hasn't noticed. "Seventy-five percent of Americans are convinced that 'campaign money buys results in Congress,' feeding an already deep national cynicism about government and what it can do for the people," the writers said.

Their answer, a voluntary public financing system paid for by a refundable tax credit or voucher, is worth debating. So is a constitutional amendment that would authorize Congress to constitutionally restrict campaign spending.

There may be better, more creative solutions out there that protect free speech and the process.

But no one will even bother to look for them if voters believe the fictional tale of toothless big-money mega-donors created in the wake of the 2012 campaign. These dark dollars remain dangerous to an already damaged system.