Happy Birthday to the Super PAC!
Happy birthday to the Super PAC, born two years ago this month.
Freedom of Speech—and Money
On March 26, 2010, the Court ruled that private individuals and groups could make unlimited contributions to a political action committee (PAC) so long as the PAC was not connected to a political party or candidate.
That case, SpeechNow.org v. FEC, followed the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in January 2010, in Citizens United v. FEC, that removed legal limits on what corporations and labor unions could spend for political purposes. Both decisions were based on First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.
The Citizens United case grew out of the 2004 presidential campaign. Citizens United, a conservative PAC, complained to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) about Fahrenheit 9/11, liberal filmmaker Michael Moore’s documentary criticizing President Bush’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. The group charged that ads for the film violated campaign laws on political advertising. The FEC dismissed the complaint.
Hillary: The Movie
Citizens United responded by making its own critical documentary about Hillary Clinton, who was then seeking the 2008 presidential nomination eventually won by Barack Obama. Called Hillary: The Movie, it was set to air on cable TV before some Democratic primaries.
However, a federal judge ruled that it violated laws on campaign ads within 30 days of a primary and blocked its broadcast.
Citizens United’s appeal of this ruling led to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision that has opened the floodgates on spending in the 2012 campaign.
First, There Were PACs
PACs are the means by which business, labor, and other interest groups raise and give money to candidates and political parties. They’ve been around since 1944, when a labor organization formed the first one to raise money for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s re-election.
Not all interest groups today have a PAC, but a large number do. Federal laws limit the amounts they may get from individual supporters, and they can give to any party or candidate in an election.
Then, There Were Super PACS
None of this applies to Super PACs, however. First formed in July 2010, they are officially known as “independent expenditure-only committees.” They can raise unlimited sums of money from individuals and organizations and spend it to support or attack political candidates. Their only restrictions: they cannot give money directly to candidates or parties or coordinate with campaigns.
Super PAC Attacks
As of this week, more than 390 Super PACs have raised nearly $154 million and spent more than $81 million in the 2012 election cycle. President Obama and each of the Republican candidates vying to replace him are supported by at least one Super PAC.
Super PAC money pays for ads and media efforts to support the favorite candidate or oppose a rival. The candidate has no control over the content of this advertising, of course, but that’s not always a bad thing. Some ads aired by Super PACs have been pretty nasty toward opponents. The independence of Super PAC advertising allows the candidate to escape blame for such vicious attacks—at least in theory.
The recent Occupy Wall Street movement portrayed a struggle between “the 99 percent” and richest 1 percent of Americans. Some critics of Super PACS in the current campaign are calling this a struggle against the .0000063 percent. That’s because fewer than 200 donors provided almost 80 percent of Super PAC money raised in 2011.
Who Are Super PAC Donors?
The trend continues. Donors giving over than $500,000 provided about 75 percent of all Super PAC money raised last month. Almost all of these “mega donors” are individuals.
They include comedian Bill Maher, who gave $1 million to Priorities USA Action, a Super PAC that supports Obama’s reelection. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson gave another $5.5 million to Winning Our Future, the Super PAC behind Newt Gingrich’s campaign.
With donations totaling $16.5 million, Adelson is the super Super-PACer so far. He has pledged $100 million, if necessary, to put Gingrich in the White House.
What Would Lincoln Think?
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln’s election campaign cost $2.8 million (in 2012 dollars). Today, even the fourth-place Republican candidate, Ron Paul, has already spent $32.7 million and his main Super PAC supporter, Endorse Liberty, has spent $3.5 million more.
Such figures make it almost certain that the record $730 million Obama spent getting to the White House in 2008 will be surpassed in 2012.
Campaign Financing to March 2012
Here’s Looking at You (Journal-News)
Pro-Romney PAC Is Killing Machine With $35 Million in Ads (San Francisco Chronicle)