Nothing super about these PACs

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen didn’t mince words Thursday when she was asked about the state of campaign financing in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling of two years ago.

That was the controversial 5-4 decision that ended the longtime prohibition against corporations and labor unions spending money from their treasuries to support or oppose candidates for public office.

“(Citizens United) is one of the worst decisions we’ve seen from any court in my lifetime and probably in the last century,” she said during a meeting with The Telegraph editorial board.

The ruling made the influence of money in our political system “exponentially worse,” she said, and left the average citizen feeling more cynical about the American electoral process than ever before.

That it did.

It was Citizens United and the later D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling known as SpeechNow.org that cleared the way for the creation of super PACs, those independent expenditure committees that can raise unlimited money from associations, corporations, individuals and unions to advocate for – but more commonly against – political candidates.

And while they played a significant role in the 2010 campaign – 84 such groups raised $84.9 million – those numbers will amount to a drop in the proverbial bucket by the time the books close on 2012.

In fact, six times as many super PACs (573) already have raised more than twice as much money ($218.2 million) to be used on political races – and there’s still five months to go before Election Day.

If you think that’s a lot of money, just wait. Politico reported this week that Republican super PACs and deep-pocket conservative groups intend to spend roughly $1 billion – that’s right, billion with a “b” – to influence the next election.

To put that number into some perspective, the $400 million expected to be spent by brothers David and Charles Koch alone is more than the $370 million raised by John McCain during his entire 2008 campaign; and the $1 billion exceeds the record $745 million raised by then-Sen. Barack Obama on his way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

To be clear, the point here isn’t which side will raise the most money to intentionally distort the records and reputations of candidates from the opposing party; both sides will have more than enough money to do that.

Rather, it’s the undemocratic campaign finance system that allows wealthy individuals to exert undue influence on the outcome of political races.

That’s what happened in Nebraska last month when billionaire Joe Ricketts – who had once considered bankrolling a $10 million campaign to inject race and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. into the presidential campaign – formed a super PAC to support the candidacy of state Sen. Deb Fischer in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate.

Attorney General Jon Bruning had been the frontrunner for most the race, but $200,000 worth of pro-Fischer and anti-Bruning ads in the final weekend of the campaign tipped the scales in favor of Fischer.

As we stated in our original editorial on the Citizens United ruling back in January 2010, of all the problems inherent in the way we elect our representatives, a shortage of corporate or labor money wasn’t one of them. The SpeechNow.org ruling that gave wealthy individuals a direct invitation to influence the outcome of political campaigns only made it worse.

How much worse? We’ll all know soon enough.