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TN Political Action Committee (PAC) Proliferation

In recent years Tennessee has seen explosive growth in the number of PACs registered in the state, and in the dollar amounts of political contributions made to state politicians.

A recent article from knoxnews.com (http://blogs.knoxnews.com/humphrey/2010/10/pac-proliferation.html) puts the number of new political action committees (PACs) at 88 since the 2008 election and decries large donations made by corporation to various political leaders in the state. Amongst these large contribution recipients is Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s PAC, receiving $26,000 in August.

While in total dollar amounts the numbers may appear large, especially to those outside the political circuit, it’s important to put these numbers into perspective. For example, in the same time period a total of 1,027 new political action committees have been registered in Missouri and millions have been spent in 2010 on political advocacy in the Show-Me state. In similar fashion, large donations to individual candidates are not uncommon in Missouri, such as Tom Schweich’s receipt of $50,000 on November 1st.

The fact that Missouri politics involves more money than Tennessee doesn’t make Tennessee’s politicians any less influenced by the power of dollars. In fact, no matter the amount, the report of any money being received by a political party is viewed as a negative event, and it is common to hear reporters denouncing the “corrupting power of money” in politics. Truly, what amount of money is too large when it comes to politics? At which point does money begin to unduly influence the process? Purists say a single dollar of political contributions is too much, but it’s important to put political spending into perspective to really understand the phenomenon.

Americans spent over $3.0 billion dollars last year on pet grooming (source: APPA, http://www.americanpetproducts.org/) – more than both political parties combined in all elections in 2010. Similarly, the video game “Call of Duty” sold over $350 million dollars in the first 24 hours after it was released last month – more than any political party received in  such a short time period  (http://venturebeat.com/2010/11/15/review-call-of-duty-blacks-ops-shows-games-can-beat-the-drama-and-action-of-movies/). While the dollar amounts involved in politics appear large when we think of them in terms of our own salaries or the cost of living, they pale in comparison to some of the aggregate spending amounts in the general economy. Money in politics may have an influence, but it is a tiny amount of money compared to the national spending on relatively unimportant items such as video games and pet care, not to mention the gargantuan amounts spent on health care or groceries.

The key to preventing corruption in politics as a result of campaign contributions is transparency, not limiting the amount people and organizations can give. Simply limiting the amount of money an organization or individual can spend does not make their point less valid or the political process less susceptible to influence. In fact, imposing campaign limits simply pushes more spending into less transparent routes as the phenomenal growth of 527 organizations demonstrates (527’s are limited in their advocacy to supporting issues, but have no contribution limits and only have to disclose their donors once a year). To try to limit a person’s political advocacy simply because we disagree with their position violates the spirit of the 1st amendment. Unpopular speech, especially political speech, is vital to the health of a democracy, and the Supreme Court’s decision last year to uphold the right of corporations to political speech is a reaffirmation of this belief in our society.

While Tennessee has experienced significant growth in the number of PACs in recent years, the dollar amounts they have spent pale in comparison to the amounts spent in Missouri, and look microscopic in comparison to the huge amounts of money spent on seemingly unimportant goods such as pet grooming. As long as running political campaigns costs money, campaign contributions will be an important part of politics. It is in all of our interest to see that money given to politicians is given in a transparent way and reported in a timely fashion. When campaign contributions are transparent it is impossible to honestly speak of money corrupting the process, because in the end, when it comes to elections everyone is the same: we all have just one vote.