Super PACS – what to know

10 Jan

It’s have become a common term in this election season.

Super PACs are political organizations that can take unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations and labor unions to spend in support of, or opposition to, federal candidates.

To do so legally, a Super PAC must avoid certain forms of coordination with candidates.

Doesn’t make much difference as Super PACs are almost always run by former staff members of a candidate.

These groups played a big role in Iowa, with a pro-Mitt Romney Super PAC, “Restore Our Future,” widely credited with running ads that stopped Newt Gingrich’s momentum in the polls.

They are expected to play an even greater role later this year, when control of the White House, Senate and the House of Representatives will be up for grabs.

Let’s make this a teachable moment.

Super PACs are troublesome for a number of reasons.

They tend to run more negative advertising, since they are able to act as the “evil twin” of campaigns because they are not accountable to voters the way candidate committees are.

Thanks to holes in the disclosure laws, which neither Congress nor the Republican commissioners on the Federal Election Commission have seen fit to fix, you will never know who is funding many of the Super PACs.

Candidates can even raise money under certain conditions for supportive Super PACs without violating the FEC’s technical coordination rules.

And thanks to clever campaign finance lawyers who can use an affiliated nonprofit 501(c)(4) group, you also may never know the identity of some donors.

If that bothers you, this should bother you more.

Super PACs may skew the legislative process in the next Congress in favor of the interests of large Super PAC contributors.

To understand why, let’s go back to the Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

In that case, the Supreme Court said the First Amendment overrode a federal law preventing corporations and unions from spending their own money to influence the outcome of elections.

Key to this ruling was the court’s statement that independent spending (that is, spending not coordinated with candidates) cannot corrupt the political process.

From there, lower courts and the FEC led the way for the creation of Super PACs.

First, they concluded that if independent spending cannot corrupt, then an individual’s contributions to an independent group cannot corrupt.

That makes about the same sense as the old line: all dogs have four legs, therefore all animals with four legs must be a dog.

Gone was the $5,000 per person contribution limit to political action committees – or PACs – which only spend independently to support or oppose federal candidates.

Then, they said if an individual’s contributions to one of these Super PACs cannot corrupt, then neither can a corporation’s or a labor union’s contribution.

Corporations now have a way to influence elections anonymously, thus avoiding the risk of losing customers who may disagree to their choice of candidates.

Our point is the initial supposition is wrong.
Not everything with four legs is a dog.

Independent spending can corrupt.

The main reason the Supreme Court has rejected challenges to campaign contribution limits is that large contributions can create the actuality and appearance of corruption of those candidates.

A candidate who receives a large contribution will feel grateful to the contributor, and legislative policy could well skew in the contributor’s direction.

So – what of the six and seven-figure donors to Super PACs supporting federal candidates?

We argue federal officeholders are likely to feel just as indebted to them.

It’s a very small step from feeling indebted to doing the bidding of other wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions out of concern they will support the person’s opponents through a Super PAC in the next election.

Given the expected tremendous spending by presidential candidates and parties in the upcoming general election, we are not very concerned that Super PAC spending will influence the outcome of the presidential election, though it might.

We’re not even that concerned about Super PAC negative advertising, which can mobilize some voters to become more politically engaged.

What we are concerned about is Super PAC spending will influence the outcome of close Senate and congressional races and when Election Day is over and the public will stop hearing about Super PACs, contributions to these groups will skew public policy away from the public interest and toward the interest of the new fat cats of campaign finance, as members of the House and Senate thank their friends and look over their shoulder at potential new enemies.

Something to think about.

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