The Joke Is on Us: Super PACs, Money and Democracy

Like the rest of America, I laughed until my ribs hurt at the antics of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as they brought the issue of corporate money in politics into the national spotlight. The "Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC," which viewers can tell you is definitely NOT coordinating with Stephen Colbert's presidential campaign, has shown the true hypocrisy of the Super PAC phenomenon that was set in motion by the Supreme Court ruling two years ago last week.

In case you aren't yet aware, Super PACs are the barely regulated version of the traditional political action committees that existed before the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. Before the 2010 Supreme Court ruling there was more transparency of donor disclosure and limitations on the size of contributions: $5,000 maximum per election for PACs associated with businesses and unions and much less for individuals. Super PACs can raise unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals, and as of January 20, over 200 Super PACs have reported total expenditures of $33 million dollars in the 2012 cycle. It's not a coincidence that South Carolina primary winner Newt Gingrich has a Super PAC that is buying up as much advertising as it can. I hope voters in Florida are ready for the onslaught.

The rules governing the interactions between candidates and their Super PAC directors (for Romney, his lawyer; for Gingrich, his former aide) are truly laughable. When Messrs. Colbert and Stewart sit down to write satire of campaign finance law, they need not think too hard. Observing the two comedians cheek to cheek "not coordinating" where Colbert's -- er Stewart's -- Super PAC targets its advertising, it becomes painfully clear that it's not just satirical coordination between Super PACs and candidates that is occurring. It's not just Republican primary opponents who are taking advantage of Super PACs. President Obama's Super PAC "Priorities USA" has so far raised $5 million and is run by Sean Sweeney, a former aide to then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel.

Others are getting in on the joke too. Click here if you want to generate your own "generically patriotic and meaninglessly obscure" Super PAC name! My favorite was "Cure the Purple Mountain Majesty Coalition."

The Citizens United ruling creating Super PACs only exacerbated a trend that has been building for 3 decades. When I began my first term in Congress in the late 1970s the growth of outside money in politics had just begun in earnest. Each year until I left I observed more and more money spent on elections from a broader range of donors, especially corporations. And each year my colleagues and I had to spend more of our time fundraising and less of our time educating ourselves on issues, talking to constituents, and working together to find bipartisan solutions to our problems. The problem of too much money in politics isn't new, but it is worse than it has ever been. And, the impact of all the money on public policy is clear. This money is not being ""donated" to advance a charitable agenda.

Super PACs only serve to enrich broadcasters and worse, relentlessly assault Americans with negativity and the ugly side of politics. Public confidence in government is at record lows and unlimited Super PAC expenditures on campaigns further erode Americans' belief in the effectiveness of their democracy. We need to restore Americans' belief that their government can work together to find solutions to overcome the obstacles confronting the nation. How can we restore public trust in government when a South Carolina voter watching a 30-minute span of television last week could see up to 13 mostly negative political ads?

But thanks in part to Stephen Colbert, Americans are finally getting sick of all the Super PAC funded negativity. According to a January 17 Pew Research Center poll 65 percent of a bipartisan group of voters aware of the Citizens United ruling believe that Super PACs have had a negative effect on campaigns. Not every politician is welcoming the enormous influx of money with open arms. Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown recently signed an informal agreement to keep Super PAC money out of their Senate race. While this is an important first step, I think it's time for Congress to act and restore some sensibility to our frayed campaign finance regulations. At a minimum, in the age of the power of the internet it's time for the citizenry to rise up, reject this political chicanery of Super PACS, and in the words of Peter Finch in the movie The Network, announce with their collective voices, "I'm mad as Hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

Even though Super PACs can legally say nice things, I have yet to see a Super PAC advertisement proclaiming all the great presidential qualities of their favored candidates. Maybe that's an issue the candidates can raise with their Super PACs next time they aren't coordinating. And if you still believe they aren't coordinating, I have a great piece of beach front property to sell you in my home state of Kansas.