Throughout the 2012 election, candidates have piously condemned Super PACs for lowering the level of political discourse. These same candidates have simultaneously derived enormous gain when these purportedly independent groups used unlimited contributions to tar and feather their opponents. Recently, in South Carolina, Gingrich criticized Romney’s Super PAC for airing inaccurate ads, but the former Massachusetts governor washed his hands of the ads, saying, “I’m not allowed to communicate with a super PAC in any way, shape or form. My goodness, if we coordinate in any way whatsoever, we go to the big house.”
Two politicians, however, have now mustered more than rhetoric to rein in the Super PACs. Last week, U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and Senator Scott Brown called for Super PACs and other outside groups to stop running ads in their election. To provide a disincentive for Super PACs to ignore their request, Brown and Warren each vowed to donate 50 percent of the cost of all such ads to charity. Most groups have reluctantly agreed to abide by the request.
Both candidates demonstrated genuine concern for the role of Super PACs in the political system. Brown criticized Super PACs for “trying to buy elections and do[ing] things inappropriately.” Warren praised the agreement as an attempt to move “beyond talk to real action to stop advertising from third-party groups.” Both candidates should be commended for taking concrete steps to change the tone and restore accountability to their electoral contest.
The goodwill of candidates, however, should not be the only barrier to unrestrained and secretive corporate spending in politics. Government needs to restore common-sense rules so that the public can hold outside groups accountable in the post-Citizens United era. Reportedly, Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Robert Brady (D-PA) will soon introduce legislation that would require outside groups to disclose the underlying sources of their funding. Such legislation would be an important first step to ensuring that outside groups are held accountable in future elections.
James Madison defended the role of a robust federal government in our political system by saying, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” If all candidates were as attuned to the perils of unlimited and opaque political spending by corporations as Brown and Warren are, perhaps we would not need campaign finance regulation. But there are too many candidates who are willing to rhetorically distance themselves from outside groups while doing nothing to rein in their worst practices. It’s time for government to play a proactive role in protecting our democracy again.