Super PACs, the inde­pen­dent expenditure-​​only polit­ical action com­mit­tees that sup­port but cannot coor­di­nate with polit­ical can­di­dates, have reshaped polit­ical cam­paigns since the United States Supreme Court’s deci­sion in Cit­i­zens United v. the Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion in 2010. We asked Richard Aren­berg, a polit­ical sci­ence lec­turer in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, to explain how Super PACs are reshaping the polit­ical landscape.

How have Super PACs changed polit­ical cam­paigns since the Cit­i­zens United case?

It has been almost exactly two years since the Supreme Court decided Cit­i­zens United v. Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion on a 5–4 vote and the damage to our polit­ical process from that deci­sion and the Speechnow​.org v. FEC deci­sion that fol­lowed is still unfolding. It is clear already that the twin equa­tions of cor­po­ra­tions equaling people and unlim­ited inde­pen­dent con­tri­bu­tions equaling free speech have dis­torted, if not cor­rupted, the cam­paign finance system.

Super PACs are able to raise unlim­ited amounts of money from cor­po­ra­tions, unions and indi­vid­uals and are able to spend huge sums in sup­port of or to attack spe­cific can­di­dates. All of this throws our polit­ical cam­paign fundraising nearly back to the pre-​​Watergate days of brown paper bags full of cash. Undis­closed (in any timely fashion) and nearly uncon­trolled funds from spe­cial inter­ests and gigantic cor­po­ra­tions, multi­na­tional in their nature, dis­tort polit­ical cam­paigns. Aggres­sive and neg­a­tive assaults made by Super PACs on oppo­nents on behalf of can­di­dates relieve the can­di­date of account­ability for the ad. Romney, for example, claimed that he could not tell Super PACs sup­porting him what to do without vio­lating the law. Even more alarming than the spread of shadowy neg­a­tive attacks is the inevitable rise in influ­ence that the enor­mous con­tri­bu­tions by indi­vid­uals, unions and cor­po­ra­tions will foster.

Though can­di­dates them­selves are not allowed, do cam­paigns and out­side stake­holders col­lab­o­rate or strate­gize with Super PACs?

Almost without excep­tion, Super PACS involved in the 2012 cam­paigns are formed and are led by former staff, fundraisers and asso­ciates of the can­di­dates. While it is hard to know specifics about whether actual direct coor­di­na­tion is taking place, the legal fic­tion that these are “inde­pen­dent” enti­ties is obvious to even casual out­side observers.

Pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates ben­e­fit­ting from multi-​​million dollar ad buys, many of whom are on record sup­porting Super PACs, wring their hands and bemoan the effects on the cam­paign of expen­di­tures – fre­quently even larger than those made by the cam­paigns them­selves – by these “inde­pen­dent” enti­ties. The result of this cha­rade is a deep­ening of public cyn­i­cism about the polit­ical process. Come­dian Stephen Col­bert has high­lighted the hypocrisy by staging a mock pres­i­den­tial cam­paign ben­e­fitted by his Super PAC bril­liantly named the “Def­i­nitely Not Coor­di­nating With Stephen Col­bert Super PAC.”

What are the chances that Con­gress would pass new leg­is­la­tion to scale back the influ­ence of Super PACs? What fac­tors would influ­ence such a decision?

While Con­gress is never quick to address cam­paign finance reform, there are incre­mental mea­sures Con­gress might take, like strength­ening dis­clo­sure require­ments that would restore some level of account­ability for the public to see. How­ever, the Supreme Court’s deci­sions limit Congress’s options. Aside from a change of heart by the Court or a change in its makeup, the main option to reverse the deci­sion is an amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion. This, of course, is a long and dif­fi­cult process requiring two-​​thirds votes in both the House and the Senate and then rat­i­fi­ca­tion by three-​​quarters of the states. Without strong and pro­longed public demand for action, prospects for such amend­ments are dim.