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Editorial

A worthy pact on 'super PACs'

Two U.S. Senate candidates in Massachusetts have agreed to temper the effect of 'super PACs.' Others should follow.

January 27, 2012
(Josh Reynolds, Elise Amendola…)

The U.S. Senatecontest in Massachusetts between Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren is fascinating not just because it's one of the more competitive races for the upper house, or because it's likely to be the most expensive in history, but because of a strange and unusually honorable deal struck this week by the two candidates.

Under their agreement, if an independent group such as a "super PAC" buys a TV ad backing one of the candidates, that candidate will donate an amount equal to half the cost of the ad to the charity of the opponent's choice. Thus, an ad placed independently by a super PAC could end up harming as well as helping its pick. To some, this pact is a flagrant violation of the free-speech rights of those individuals who contribute to super PACs. We think it's a sensible way of reducing the corrosive influence that independent political groups are having on our democracy in the wake of the Supreme Court's flawed Citizens United decision in 2010.

Some conservative backers of independent political spending, such as the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto, complain that "today's 'liberals' are not very liberal when it comes to free speech." They have a point. It's difficult to define the "liberal" view of the 1st Amendment, but when it comes to censorship or obscenity, many liberals favor a broad definition of free speech. Yet they tend to be incensed by Citizens United, which asserted that the 1st Amendment forbids government limits on independent political spending by unions and corporations.

When measuring the correctness of decisions such as Citizens United, it's valuable to consider their real-world impact and whether they help or harm the democratic process. It's very hard to imagine how giving more influence over elections to wealthy individuals or powerful collectives such as corporations or unions — the very definition of special interests — will benefit our democracy. Popular elections are supposed to reflect the will of the people, not just the CEOs.

Not only does equating money with speech make it likelier that those with a lot of money will dictate the course of elections, but it makes candidates beholden to those donors. Take, for example, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, who together donated $10 million to a super PAC backing GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. That's enough money, potentially, to tilt primary elections in the key early-voting states. If Gingrich wins, it's entirely possible that he'll owe his presidency to the Adelsons. What will he be expected to do in return?

The pact between Brown and Warren is a tough-to-enforce deal that probably won't halt all outside spending, but it's a start — one that we hope President Obama and the eventual Republican nominee will emulate.

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