Vail Daily column: Super PACs – what they are and why they exist
Over the next 11 months, you’re going to hear about them a lot – Super PACs. What are they and from what deep primordial stew have they evolved?
Well, first things first, “PAC” is an acronym for Political Action Committee. A Super PAC is a political action committee on steroids. More on that in just a sec.
A political action committee may be defined as a group formed (by an industry or an issue-oriented organization) to raise and contribute money to the campaigns of candidates likely to advance the group’s particular interests. Let me make this easier – a PAC is a special interest group that raises money and contributes that money to the campaign of a candidate it believes will further its agenda. Under the Federal Election Campaign Act, an organization becomes a “political committee” by receiving contributions or making expenditures in excess of $1,000 for the purpose of influencing a federal election.
There are nearly as many PACs as the imagination can conceive. There are PACs in the banking industry, finance, energy, insurance, gun rights, health care and the pharmaceutical industry, agribusiness, entertainment, the food, beverage and alcohol industries, law, natural resources, accounting, real estate, labor, gay and lesbian rights, children’s issues and a zillion others. There are also PACs specific to certain elected officials. Take, if you will, Speaker John Boehner’s Freedom Project, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s Every Republican is Crucial PAC (cleverly, “ERIC PAC”), Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s PAC to the Future (presumably starring Michael J. Fox?), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s AmeriPac, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Searchlight Leadership Fund, Majority Whip Dick Durbin’s Prairie PAC, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Bluegrass Committee.
Hillary has her HillPAC. Sarah Palin has her SarahPac. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, John Huntsman, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrinch all have PACs. If all of this is not enough, well, hold on, there’s more. And the “more” when it comes to PACs is the superhero of the PACs, the Super PAC.
When an interest group, union or corporation wants to contribute to a federal candidate or party, it must do so through a PAC. These PACs receive and raise money from a “restricted class,” generally consisting of managers and shareholders in the case of a corporation, or members in the case of funds to candidates for federal office. Contributions from corporate or labor union treasuries are illegal, though they may sponsor a PAC and provide financial support for its administration and fundraising. “Independent” PACs not affiliated with a corporation, union or trade or membership association may solicit contributions from the general public but must pay their operating costs from these regulated contributions.
Contributions by individuals to federal PACs are limited to $5,000 per year. However, pursuant to the decision in SpeechNow.org vs. FEC, a U.S. Court of Appeals case, PACs which make only “independent expenditures” (that is, advertisements or other spending that calls for the election or defeat of a federal candidate but which is not coordinated with a federal candidate or political party) are not bound by this contribution limit. Which is why, at least in part, your TV will be buzzing with advertising as the election season rolls to our door and, at least in those ads, you won’t hear the familiar “I’m so-and-so and I approve this message.” In other words, PACs are not limited in their ability to spend money independently of a candidate.
PACs must report all of the financial activities, including direct donations and other expenses, to the Federal Election Commission, which makes the reports available to the public.
Now then, the Super PAC.
In 2010, the landmark case known as Citizens United, as they say, “changed everything.” Its most significant impact was to change the rules regarding corporate campaign expenditures. Specifically, what a bitterly divided Supreme Court in its 5-4 decision ruled was that the First Amendment prohibits government from placing limits on independent spending for political purposes by corporations and unions. The decision in Citizens United made it legal for corporations and unions to spend from their general treasuries to finance independent expenditures. Direct corporate and union contributions to federal campaigns, however are still prohibited; corporations or unions seeking to contribute to federal candidate campaigns must still rely on traditional PACs for that purpose. However, following the Citizens United decision, corporations and unions may spend money independently of campaigns without forming a PAC.
Citizens United paved the way for the creation of independent expenditure political action committees, now known as Super PACs. Officially, they are known as “independent-expenditure only committees.” These organizations may accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions and corporations (both for profit and not-for-profit) for the purpose of making independent expenditures.
Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate directly with candidates or political parties. They are required to disclose their donors, just like traditional PACs. However many exploit a technicality in the filing requirements in order to postpone disclosure until well after the elections in which they participate.
Even absent a formal connection to a campaign, Super PACs openly support particular candidacies. In this primary season, for example, Mitt’s Super PAC, Restore Our Future Super PAC openly supported Romney while lambasting rival Newt Gingrich. And, of course, vice versa – Newt’s Winning Our Future Super PAC equally set upon its rival, Romney. Each Super PAC has, at least at times, been run by former employees of its candidate and each twisted arms and hauled in lucre from that candidate’s associates.
So money, without limit, is now the game.
It’s enough sometimes to want to send them PAC-ing!
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, homeowners’ associations, family law and divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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