Super PACs

The Texas Tribune has a story (“The Super Pacs and the Rise of the Non Campaign“) that discusses the issue of “Super PACs”  from a Texas angle.

First, let me try to explain the origins and varieties of “Super PACs.”

In the beginning, there were PACs (“Political Actions Committees”). PACs were political committees organized under federal law that operated under a set of rules and overseen by the Federal Election Commission. I’ll skip explaining all the rules they had to follow because they’re pretty much moot now that Super PACs are here.

The basic Super PAC became a major concern after the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision from the Supreme Court because the Court ruled that corporations have some of the same rights First Amendment rights as individual citizens. This, combined with the ruling that PACs could spend unlimited amounts as long as they did not give directly to the campaigns or coordinate with the campaigns, created the possibility of large amounts of money going directly from corporate or union accounts directly into politics.

Still, the principle of transparency was still in place. There were these big PACs out there spending tons of money, but at least we knew who they were and what they were up to.

Today… not so much.

The newest breed of Super PACs are organized under IRS rules as non-profits and not subject to federal election laws that require disclosure. So, they can spend as much as they want and the public has no way of knowing who is providing the money.

Here some the problems with these new Super PACs:

  1. A few people with a lot of money can have a big impact. Those names may be a secret to you and me, but those big donors will make their contribution known to the candidates if they win office. If I give a pro-Perry PAC a million bucks I’ll have the canceled check handy if I meet Rick Perry.
  2. As the Texas Tribune story points out, these groups can run ads with nasty attacks that benefit their candidate while their candidate claims to have nothing to do with it. That is, campaigns can farm out their dirty work to these committees. PACs do not have to officially coordinate with campaigns to know what they want. Does anybody think the Super PAC backing Mitt Romney (“Restore Our Future”) does not know that Romney would like to see Perry attacked?
  3. Finally, campaigns lose control of the campaign. With millions being spent by these Super PACs it is much harder for candidates following campaign laws to raise and spend enough money to avoid being drowned out.

Stephen Colbert has been demonstrating the functioning of Super PACs brilliantly with his own Super PAC (“Americans For A Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow”). Whether you think that these committees should be outlawed or that we simply need to be aware of the difference between them and the candidate’s official campaign committee, the Colbert Report has done a public service by creating a great example of exactly what lurks beneath the surface of campaign finance laws.


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