Super-PAC Defenders Lose Debate — With Billionaires Behind the Curtains

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Sen. Chuck Schumer arrives at a news conference to announce new legislation "to blunt the worst effects" of the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision.

Super-political action committees sound patriotic, as defined by David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics: “It’s Americans getting together and pooling their money to talk to other Americans.”

Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, takes a darker view that super-PACs could hurt the country by corrupting the elected officials who benefit from their election spending.

The two joined in an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate last night in New York City. Joining Keating to make the case that there’s still too much regulation of money in politics was Jacob Sullum, senior editor of Reason Magazine, which advocates for free-markets. And Jonathan Soros, who founded a super-PAC to fight the influence of super-PACs, supported Potter — who is perhaps best known as the lawyer for comedian Stephen Colbert’s Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.

Super-PACs, new to this year’s presidential race, can accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions and corporations. So far this election cycle, such groups have raised about $350 million. They’re buying pricey television advertisements to talk up one candidate or attack another.

As for Keating’s “Americans getting together” point: One-quarter of that money comes from just 10 donors, led by Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks such spending. Adelson is the 29th-richest person in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, his net worth about $20.8 billion.

Potter and Soros argued that candidates feel beholden to the people who write million-dollar checks to help them. Super-PACs may not legally coordinate with candidates, yet are often run by their top former advisers.

Sullum — after pointing out the irony of Soros’ position, given that his billionaire father spent tens of millions of dollars trying to defeat President George W. Bush in 2004 — said super-PACs are simply free speech. George Soros is the 25th-richest person, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index shows, his net worth about $21.9 billion.

Partner Keating chimed in that “there’s no evidence votes can be bought.”

The audience laughed.

That may be when the Keating-Sullum team lost them. More audience members took a negative view of super-PACs after the debate, crowning Potter and Soros the winners.

The pro-super-PAC team started from a disadvantage: Only 2 percent of Americans see the money outside groups spend as good for democracy, compared with 24 percent who believe it’s bad, according to a late July survey by the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post. (More than half of the respondents had no idea what a super-PAC is.)


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