Experts analyze impact of super PACs on the election landscape

Feb. 29, 2012

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Beverly Clark
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beverly.clark@emory.edu

Super PACs are changing the landscape of American politics, say Emory University experts, allowing unlimited amounts of money from extremely wealthy people, companies and unions to influence candidates and campaigns. Super PACs have already had a significant impact on this year's Republican nomination process, even through they are a relatively new phenomenon, evolving from the Citizens United case of 2012.

"I think that what [super PACs] do is provide a magnification of the influence of a tiny group of individuals and corporations at the expense of the larger citizenry,"says Alan Abramowitz, political science professor and national politics expert.

The influence of super PACs

Super PACs are separate, independent entities from a candidate's campaign, but many are formed and run by allies of the candidate. Millions and millions of dollars are pumped into these organizations by a select few, and Abramowitz says in order to keep that money coming, candidates may be tempted to take positions and actions in the interest of those providing the money.

"A lot of money is coming into super PACs and campaigns from individuals and corporations in the energy sector: oil companies, coal companies and natural gas companies," Abramowitz explains. "I think there's no question this is having an impact on the whole climate change debate on U.S. energy policy, a major area of policy-making in the U.S."


The ethics of lobbying

Lobbying isn't unethical in its most basic form, where any person can discuss an issue with his or her representative, but it can quickly change when there's a "quid pro quo"as part of the exchange, says Emory ethics expert Edward Queen. Similarly, the ethicality of super PACs is distorted by the issue of access to candidates, media and controlling the political dialogue, he says.

"The problem gets at the question of legitimacy of the political process in the United States,"Queen says. "As long as there's the perception that the system is corrupted by lobbying, by gifts, by monetary donations, the very stability and long-term health of the system is at risk."