I Am (I Am, I Am) Super PAC

Making sense of campaign finance coverage may require super powers

Faster than a 527! More powerful than a political action committee! Able to influence elections with unlimited spending! It’s….. super PAC!

The Washington Post yesterday took on “super PACs,” that is, endeavored to explain what they are, how and when they came to be, and precisely what super powers they possess. From the Post:

A new political weapon known as the “super PAC” has emerged in recent weeks, allowing independent groups to both raise and spend money at a pace that threatens to eclipse the efforts of political parties.

The committees spent $4 million in the last week alone and are registering at the rate of nearly one per day. They are quickly becoming the new model for election spending by interest groups, according to activists, campaign-finance lawyers and disclosure records…

Three dozen of the new committees have been registered with the Federal Election Commission over the past two months, including such major players as the conservative Club for Growth, the Republican-allied American Crossroads and the liberal women’s group Emily’s List.

FEC records show that super PACs have spent more than $8 million on television advertising and other expenditures, almost all of it within the past month. Groups favoring GOP candidates have outspent Democratic supporters by more than 3 to 1, mirroring an overall surge in spending by the Republican Party and its allies in recent weeks, records show.

And what super things can super PACs do? More from the Post:

The super PACs have “opened the door to the clearest, easiest way to spend unlimited funds on an election,” said Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman who served as general counsel to GOP presidential candidate John McCain in 2008. “This is pretty much the holy grail that people have been looking for.”

The new committees are part of a complicated patchwork of fundraising operations that fuel political campaigns. They range from committees formed by individual candidates to the political parties and interest groups. The system relies heavily on political action committees, or PACs, which are mostly used to donate funds to individual campaigns and must adhere to strict limits on donations.

But the super PACs, officially known as “independent expenditure-only committees,” are free of most of those constraints. The only caveat is that they are not allowed to coordinate directly with candidates or political parties. The groups must disclose their donors, although most have not done so yet because they are so new and will not file their first disclosure reports until mid-October.

“For people who want to get involved in the election and don’t mind doing it openly and transparently, this is the route they’re going,” said Brett Kappel, an election lawyer at the law firm Arent Fox. “The people who are more bashful are giving to nonprofits….”

… those largely disclosure-exempt 501(c)s the New York Times walked us through last week. For the “bashful.”

So, to recap, (paraphrasing a recent Bloomberg piece on the topic): Super PACs can accept unlimited donations from individuals, unions, and corporations to run ads that expressly support or oppose candidates, an option previously available only to groups that observed federal contribution and source limits. Super PACs must also register with the FEC and -– unlike those 501(c)s — disclose their donors (though many won’t have to do so until mid-October).

But, wait. Readers were told precisely the opposite in a Philadelphia Inquirer story Sunday which seems to ascribe more super powers to super PACs than does the Post. To wit (emphasis mine):

To analysts who follow campaign spending, such groups [as the American Future Fund] are known as “super PACs” for their ability to spend millions to influence elections without revealing the source of their funding.

Making their donors invisible? That’s not among super PACs’ super powers. The Inquirer story focuses on the American Future Fund and its super-sized influence on area races. The AFF is a 501(c)(4) (so, no donor disclosure required), but not, technically, a super PAC.

Here’s the National Journal, which does consistently good reporting on the complex world of campaign finance, shortly after the FEC issued advisory opinions this summer paving the way for super PACs:

“I expect you’ll see an uptick in these kinds of groups,” said Marc Elias, a partner at Perkins Coie and an attorney for Commonsense Ten. Indeed, the FEC advisory opinions appear to set the stage for a new generation of “super” political action committees that raise unlimited, previously-outlawed corporate and union money, while comprehensively reporting all receipts and expenditures. These groups must follow the same disclosure rules as fully-regulated PACs, but may not donate money to candidates.

So, no invisibility for super PAC funders.

It is indeed, as the Post puts it, “a complicated patchwork of fundraising operations that fuel political campaigns” (hence, the glossary that ran with the Post piece). As for the super PAC piece of the patchwork, the Post notes that “more than half” of super PAC spending so far “has come from American Crossroads, a pro-Republican group founded with the help of former George W. Bush administration adviser Karl Rove.” The Sunlight Foundation (which helps fund CJR’s reporting on transparency) maintains a searchable list of super PACs registered with the FEC and links to their filings.

The list shows, for example, that at least seven such groups have been formed since last week.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.