Robbins: What super PACs are and why they exist |

Robbins: What super PACs are and why they exist

Over the next 11 months, you’re going to hear about super PACs a lot. What are they and from what deep primordial stew did they evolve?

Well, first things first, PAC is an acronym for a 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.  To 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, in support of “green” initiatives, in finance, energy, insurance, pro- and anti-gun rights and ownership, in the health care and the pharmaceutical industries, in agribusiness, entertainment, the food, beverage and alcohol industries, law, natural resources, accounting, real estate, labor, in support of gay and lesbian rights, regarding children’s issues and a zillion others. There are also PACs specific to certain elected and/or prospective officials. 

Super-sized influence

If all of this is not enough, well, wait, there’s more! And the “more” when it comes to PACs is the superhero of the PAC world, the super PAC.

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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 2010 decision in v. 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. 

This is why, at least in part, your TV will be buzzing with advertising as the election season thunders like a storm tide 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 their 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 the 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.

No limits

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. Take, if you will, Andrew Yang’s MATH PAC, Citizens Against Plutocracy, which supports Bernie Sanders, the Committee for American Sovereignty, which supports Trump, and Dump POTUS 45, which opposes him, John Kennedy’s Conservative Louisiana, and John Hickenlooper’s Shared Purpose PAC. As of this writing, there are more than 100 single-candidate super PACs.

Many super PACs have, at least at times, been run by former employees of its candidate and each has twisted arms and hauled in lucre from that candidate’s associates.

While money has always greased the palms of politics, since Citizens United, money — without limit — is now the game.

In the current milieu, the greedy image of the Pac-Man gobbling the dots seems particularly apt. It’s enough, sometimes, to want to send the whole lot of them Pac-ing!

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