Attack of the Super PACs

Fund-raising machines symbolize freedom, but spread political poison

Super PACs have become this year’s super-villains.

Thanks to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing them, “super” political action committees that are independent but support certain candidates can raise unlimited amounts of money – and individuals are allowed to give unlimited amounts to them.

Technically, the Super PACs aren’t allowed to coordinate their activities with the candidates they support. But it’s naive to think they would ignore a candidate’s wishes.

Indeed, comedian Stephen Colbert, in his mock presidential campaign, turned his Super PAC over to fellow comedian Jon Stewart – and it was promptly renamed the “Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert SuperPAC.”

The public, though, is deadly serious about wanting Super PACs banned, by a margin of nearly 70 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post poll – an astounding consensus crossing party lines.

There’s good reason for that: Political ads have long tended toward the negative, but with the influx of all that new money, Super PACs have become a main sewer pipeline, dumping political raw sewage all over the campaign. It has made the nation’s politics all the more toxic.

We do wonder how one goes about banning Super PACs under the First Amendment. While the current incarnation of PACs is obnoxious and unsettling, one of this nation’s most cherished liberties and greatest assets is the freedom to form associations – including those that promote political causes and candidates. How to rein in Super PACs without stepping on that vital freedom is a tricky task.

While we sort that out, however, there’s another election practice that is a ton more dangerous to the body politic: The profligate support of candidates by public-sector labor unions.

The Denver Post reports that a public-sector union network of contributors in that state “helped Colorado’s liberal super PACs spend nearly 150 times more money than their Republican counterparts in 2010.”

But the danger isn’t a partisan one; it’s a practical one. If public-sector unions – often using cash supplied by taxpayers, in the form of mandatory dues paid by workers – are successful in essentially hiring their own bosses, who are in turn beholden to them, the upward pressure on public spending only increases. This, at a time when most states are bowing under the weight of public-employee benefits and retirements.

Nor is this merely an academic discussion: The city of Stockton, Calif., is on the verge of bankruptcy. As one Stockton business owner noted on National Public Radio – hardly a conservative bastion – “When the real estate was booming and the money was coming in, naturally the politicians, being politicians, made everybody happy. (The) police department, fire department, all got handsome wages and retirement plans – same as city officials.”

How outrageous is it? Consider this, from Stockton City Manager Bob Deis, who said that in the 1990s, “City employees only had to work one month, and then they could retire, and the city would pick up their insurance for free for them and their spouse for the rest of their lives.”

“Now,” adds NPR, “the bill for those public employee benefits has come due.”

NPR calls it “An example to avoid.” Yet, you can be sure it’s being repeated wherever public-sector unions have seized control of the politicians. Wisconsin is just a high-profile example of the battle for the public purse that public-sector unions are waging – and in many cases winning.

We need not wonder what such a country looks like. It’s called Greece.

Super PACs are fun to hate. But the real action, the real potential for lasting harm, is elsewhere.

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