Super PACs emerged after the controversial Citizens United case in 2010 in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations, unions, and other organizations could spend unlimited amounts of their general treasury money on independent expenditures. These political groups can accept unlimited amounts of donations from anyone and their purpose is primarily to influence elections. They only spend money on independent expenditures -- political advertisements that specifically cal for the election or defeat of a particular candidate in the form of mailings, radio ads, television ads, billboards, and other media -- but have to disclose their donors. It is illegal for them to coordinate or cooperate with a political candidate that they are either supporting or defeating.
What’s the significance?
While Citizens United allowed corporations and unions to spend money on political expenditures, it wasn’t until two months later that the case Speechnow.org v FEC led to the birth of the Super PAC, a term coined by reporter Eliza Newlin Carney. The court ruled that contributions to independent expenditure-only groups could be unlimited and from any source. Unlike traditional Political Action Committees (PACs) that can only receive donations in the amount of $5,000 or less from individuals or other PACs and not from companies, Super PACs can receive money from wealthy individuals, corporations, unions, and other groups. Also unlike PACs, Super PACs cannot donate money directly to a political candidate.
While Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate with candidates, many critics argue that Congress has not established clear rules on what “coordinating” actually means. They point out that many Super PACs are run by former close political associates of the candidates they support, and that often these candidates will show up at the Super PAC’s fundraising events. While special interest groups are only allowed to donate a certain amount directly to political campaigns, Super PACs are a way for them to get around that limit.
Super PACs have already influenced the 2012 presidential election and particularly the Republican primaries, as these groups have spent more money than the Republican candidates' own political campaigns. Republicans also lead in the amount of money raised for Super PACs. The “Restore our Future” Super PAC supporting Mitt Romney has the highest amount of contributions at over $40 million. Obama has a Super PAC called “Priorities USA Action” that has under a million dollars. While Citizens United has opened the door for corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money, so far most of the money given to Super PACs has come from wealthy donors. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the top 100 Super PAC donors, or 3.7 percent of contributors from 2011-2012, raised 80 percent of the funds. The NJPIRG Law & Policy Center reports that most of the money contributed to Super PACs so far has been from a few wealthy donors and business interests and significant amounts have come from secret sources. This is because some special interest groups who form a 501(c) non-profit (also known as 527 organization) don't have to disclose their donors. The money from these non-profits has often gone to Super PACs.
Who's talking about it?
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt explains how Super PACs can keep candidates going even though voters don't consider them to be real contenders...Fred Wertheimer argues that we can and should get rid of Super PACs...Katrina vanden Heuvel writes that Super PACs are the real winners in the 2012 Republican primaries and that their existence will taint voters' perceptions of politics...Steven Rosenfeld shows how Super PACs influenced and won in the 2012 Iowa Caucuses.