Political Action Committees are dominating the 2012 Presidential election season with millions of dollars from wealthy donors, unions, corporations and other outside groups funding an advertising war between the candidates.
The Supreme Court’s decision in mid-2010 in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission unleashed these so-called “super PACs” when it ruled that political spending is a form of protected speech under the 1st Amendment. That gave corporations and unions the right to spend money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. Despite the ruling, contributions made directly to a Federal campaign from a corporate or labor union treasury was still illegal, but the same type of funding could legally be given to a political action committee in support of a campaign or issue.
The super PAC didn’t become so super until SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, in which it was decided that the independent expenditure political action committees could pool contributions and make expenditures in support of or opposition to a candidate provided that the expenditures were made independently of a campaign or a candidate. The organizations are required to disclose donor information on a monthly or quarterly basis, but often loopholes keep the information from surfacing until long after an election has ended.
Critics of super PACs say that the organizations are fundamentally altering the democratic process by pumping massive sums of money into mind-bending ad blitzes that end in bought-and-paid-for elections and elected officials who are certainly corporate puppets. The finance laws concerning super PACs dictate that they must operate completely independent of the candidates whom they support, but most campaign finance experts say that it is very unlikely that the candidates have nothing to do with their super PACs’ actions.
A recent article by Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll notes some pretty cozy relationships between super PACs and the 2012 Presidential candidates they support:
Restore Our Future— Mitt Romney
Carl Forti: political director of Romney 2008 campaign
Charles Spies: CFO and counsel of Romney 2008 campaign
Larry McCarthy: media adviser of Romney 2008 campaign
Priorities USA Action—Barack Obama
Sean Sweeney: former Obama White House aide
Bill Burton: former White House deputy press secretary
Winning Our Future—Newt Gingrich
Rick Tyler: former Gingrich spokesman and aide
Becky Burkett: former chief fundraiser for Gingrich’s American Solutions for Winning the Future
Charlie Smith: former aide
Revolution PAC—Ron Paul
Joe Becker: chief legal counsel to Ron Paul 2008 campaign
Penny Langford Freeman: political consultant and Paul’s political director from 1998 to 2007
Winning Our Future (pro-Gingrich) super PAC director Rick Tyler recently appeared on MSNBC claiming he has no communication with Gingrich, but said he can stay in step with the campaign because of their long history together.
“I’ve been with Newt a long time and I can dance with his campaign and not coordinate, so I’m not worried about it [discussing plans with Gingrich],” Tyler said.
The Washington Post reported earlier this month that Tyler had plenty of funds for his “dance” with the Gingrich campaign after casino mogul and Israel advocate Sheldon Adelson gave $5 million to the PAC. Pundits speculate that the funds were used to produce a half-hour movie, “When Mitt Romney Came To Town,” that portrayed Romney as a “predatory corporate raider” during his years at Bain capital.
In all, the most recent Federal campaign disclosures indicate that super PACs have spent more than $35 million on the 2012 Presidential race so far. According to CNN, more than half of the spending has been for political attack ads on behalf of Gingrich and Romney.
The candidates have a love-hate relationship with super PACs. The organizations allow for nasty and sometimes misleading attacks to be made against opponents without candidates having to take responsibility for the information provided; but, they also have to spend a great deal of time defending or disavowing the actions of the super PACs that support them.
During a debate prior to the South Carolina primary, Romney spoke out against the use of super PACs.
“Let people make contributions they want to make to campaigns. Let campaigns then take responsibility for their own words and not have this strange situation where we have people out there who support us, who run ads we don’t like,” he said.
The Romney supporting Restore Our Future PAC, under the control of the candidate’s former staffers, has run the majority of Romney’s television advertisements and spent $16,724, 439 on his behalf, according to PAC Track.
After the Romney PAC spent nearly $3 million attacking Gingrich in Iowa, the former House Speaker accused Romney of “buying millions in attack ads through a phony super PAC run by his former staff, paid for by his millionaire friends.”
Washington journalist Eliza Carney, said during a recent PBS appearance that she did not believe that PACs are holding up to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
“Well, it’s worth saying that there are certainly those who think these super PACs are a good thing, that they’ve enhanced speech and that there’s more competition now,” she said. “But it’s also true that the Supreme Court said, these entities will not be corrupting because it’s independent and it’s fully disclosed. And I think, arguably, neither of those premises is really being borne out by the reality of modern campaigning.”
Other politicians and public figures also believe that super PACs have hurt the democratic process and are acting in protest to the organizations. Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown, who is up for re-election this year, has made an agreement with his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, to fight the influence of PACs in their race. According to U.S. News, the candidates have agreed to pay a penalty of half the amount of money an outside group pays to run TV or Internet ads against the other candidate. The money will be given to charity, and the two have asked broadcasters to support them in their efforts to curtail PAC influence.
Comedian and faux conservative talk show host Stephen Colbert has long been critical of unenforceable super PAC rules. Colbert created his own PAC in 2011 called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow and has used it to launch off-the-wall satirical pseudo-political ads, including one that advised Iowa voters to write in Rick Perry as their Presidential choice, but to spell his name “Parry,” with an “A” for America.
Colbert pointed out the ridiculousness of assuming candidates have no contact with their super PACs in a recent episode of The Colbert Report when he signed his PAC over to fellow comedian Jon Stewart and renamed it The Definitely not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC so that he could “explore running for President of The United States of South Carolina.” Stewart then assured the audience that there was no way the two could “work out a series of Morse-code blinks to convey information with each other” concerning the PAC. Below is a video of Colbert’s super PAC transfer episode: