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Two cheers for super PACs

Super PACs aren’t the constitution-eating monsters critics have made them out to be. In fact, they engage voters in the democratic process. So why only two cheers? Loopholes prevent full transparency on where these groups get their funding. But Congress can fix that.

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Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, left, accompanied by Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Feb. 1 to discuss the disclosure of super PAC donors to the Republican presidential candidates.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

About these ads

As a result of several key judicial decisions, the 2010 election brought forth a new kind of political organization: the super PAC. In the 2012 election cycle, these oft-vilified political action committees (PACs) continue to make a name for themselves.

Attacks on super PACs have been fierce. At a 2010 campaign reception where tickets cost up to $2,400, President Obama called them “a threat to democracy.” A recent article in The Daily Beast refers to them as “shadowy organizations” that “wreak havoc on the presidential campaign.” Even Mitt Romney, who benefited from this "havoc" when super PACs ran ads against his opponents, says he wishes that they would "disappear."

But such criticism – from both sides of the aisle – is overblown. Super PACs may have their problems, but they are not the Constitution-eating monsters critics have made them out to be.

What makes a super PAC so super?

A regular PAC may take contributions only up to $5,000 per individual, and none from unions or corporations. By contrast, a super PAC can accept unlimited sums from individuals, unions, and corporations. Unlike a regular PAC, it cannot give money directly to candidates. But it can make unlimited independent expenditures for ads and other campaign items, as long as it does not directly coordinate with the candidates that it is helping.

Under close analysis, some of the loudest, most frequent criticisms of super PACs don’t hold up.

Opponents say that super PACs enable corporate interests to buy undue influence over the federal government.

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