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Dan Glickman

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Looking Into the Future: Super PACs and Congress

Posted: 03/19/2012 3:10 pm

Much has been made of the impact that Super PACs are having on the 2012 presidential race, not least of all by me. We already know that Super PACs can enable extraordinarily wealthy donors to keep longshot presidential candidacies alive by providing enormous checks used to blanket states with predominantly negative advertising. Realistically, the impact is likely to be far greater on Congress.

Congress isn't the most beloved institution these days, with popularity ratings hovering between root canals and Fidel Castro. Congress is somewhat deserving of this low rating for a lot of reasons, but in large part because of its inability to pass budgets, raise the debt ceiling or confirm presidential nominees. Enter Super PACs.

Incumbents may have a more difficult time maintaining their seats thanks to Super PACs. Just ask Reps. Jean Schmidt (R), Spencer Bauchus (R) or Jesse Jackson Jr. (D), each of whom faced primary opponents that received funding from the Super PAC called the "Campaign for Primary Accountability." This particular Super PAC spent $250,000 to oust Rep. Bachus, but he survived. Rep. Schmidt, on the other hand, ended up losing her primary to Brad Wenstrup, an Iraq war veteran and political novice. If Mr. Wenstrup ends up winning the general election, should he expect the Campaign for Primary Accountability to send thousands of dollars to his primary opponent in 2014?

It's not clear, but what is clear is that Super PACs do have the power to intervene in congressional races, where Super PAC dollars can make an even bigger splash than in the national Presidential race. Maybe this is a good way to create genuine competition in congressional races which have historically been non-competitive. But more likely it will be a way for a few very wealthy contributors to increasingly control the political process.

If Super PACs can successfully intervene in Congressional races, and have an even greater impact on them because of their smaller regional scope, it's not a stretch of the imagination to forsee Members of Congress having hundreds of thousands of Super PAC dollars thrown against them as the result of a single vote on a controversial issue. More significantly, big corporations, industry groups, labor unions, wealthy individuals or organizations could easily create Super PACs that promise to lend their substantial financial weight to any opponent of a Member of Congress who votes to eliminate a tax subsidy, a spending item, or a vote on a social issue that a group or individual favors. Imagine how crippling it would be if Members of Congress become increasingly fixated each week of their congressional career about the size of the check their opponent's campaign receives by voting a certain way on a certain issue; even months and months before an election.

Being a Congressman today has a lot of challenges I didn't face when I was in the House: increasingly polarized redistricting, the expansion of 24 hour news channels, much stronger party identification and decreasing tolerance for making "independent" decisions, but in my judgement, the influx of huge sums of money is the biggest change. The job is tough enough under the best of circumstances.

Will Super PACs, representing those huge sums of money, paralyze the ability of Members of Congress to even propose a vote for a controversial position? Will it mean that during each two year House term, or six year Senate term, thousands of dollars will continually be dropped into congressional races after every single vote? Will it make Members even more risk averse and unwilling to make compromises? The United States has major obstacles, from our growing debt to our fragile economy and beyond. Congress must be able to function appropriately in order to tackle these problems, and lead when necessary on tough problems such as deficit reduction.

I fear that one consequence of Super PACs entering the congressional campaign arena will be that Congress becomes more constrained than it is even now. In 20 years we will look back and say that the introduction of Super PACs to our political system was a huge mistake. Of course, if I could predict the future I wouldn't be so worried about my NCAA tournament bracket. For the sake of our political system and the country, I hope I'm wrong.