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The Rise of 'Super PACs' Continues, Leaving Voters in Dark as Attack Ads Fill Airwaves

by Michael Beckel
The proliferation of “super PACs” -- political organizations armed with the ability to raise unlimited amounts of money from wealthy individuals and corporations and to spend huge sums explicitly advocating for or against candidates -- continues at a staggering pace.

Thirty-three such committees have now registered their intention to raise unlimited sums for independent expenditures with the Federal Election Commission, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis of FEC data.

High-level political operatives on both the left and the right have jumped into the fray, establishing these new “super PACs,” as OpenSecrets Blog has previously reported.

Two months ago, the FEC gave the official green light to special interest groups hoping to cash in on federal court rulings that loosened campaign finance rules.

On July 22, the FEC gave its blessing to the conservative Club for Growth and the liberal Commonsense Ten, allowing them, and other groups like them, to form “super PACs,” officially known as “independent expenditure-only committees.” These committees can raise unlimited sums from individuals, corporations, unions and other groups. And with those massive war chests, they can run advertisements expressly advocating for or against federal candidates.

Some of these groups have yet to report raising a dime. Others have already raised millions of dollars -- and are spending hundreds of thousands in competitive races across the country. One thing is clear: New groups of this sort continue to register with the FEC, and their influence will be felt during the final weeks of the campaign. (See a full list of these organizations later in the story.)

IE Only Super PACs.jpgIn previous election cycles, groups that wanted to run ads that expressly advocated for or against candidates faced more severe fund-raising restrictions. It was illegal for a person to contribute more than $5,000 per year to a political committee. This cycle, however, several legal opinions have transformed the campaign finance landscape and erased previous rules.

 

The Supreme Court’s January decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission overturned a century-old ban on corporate and union treasury funds being used in politics. While corporations and unions cannot make direct campaign contributions from their treasury funds, these monies can be used to fund advertisements that overtly encourage voters to elect or defeat federal candidates. (photo by Flickr user Tony.L.Wong)

The Supreme Court’s January decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission overturned a century-old ban on corporate and union treasury funds being used in politics. While corporations and unions cannot make direct campaign contributions from their treasury funds, these monies can be used to fund advertisements that overtly encourage voters to elect or defeat federal candidates.

Furthermore, in March, a federal court in SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission ruled that the government’s cap on donations to political committees was unconstitutional -- so long as those groups don’t make direct contributions to candidates and don’t coordinate with candidates when running independent advertisements.

The following table lists all committees that intend to raise unlimited contributions through Sept. 20, including the date each group officially informed the FEC of their desire to raise unrestricted sums of money in accordance with the SpeechNow.org and Citizens United rulings.

FEC ID #Committee NameIE-Only Letter Filed
C00484287AFL-CIO WORKERS VOICES PAC9/20/2010
C00488940NEW HOUSE INDEPENDENT EXPENDITURE COMMITTEE9/14/2010
C00430876WORKING FOR US POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEE INC9/10/2010
C00488759AMERICAN WORKER INC, THE9/10/2010
C00488742NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS CONGRESSIONAL FUND9/10/2010
C00469890PATRIOT MAJORITY PAC9/9/2010
C00488783SPEECHNOW.ORG9/9/2010
C00473918WOMEN VOTE!9/8/2010
C00488569COALITION TO PROTECT AMERICAN VALUES9/7/2010
C00488494NEW PROSPERITY FOUNDATION; THE9/2/2010
C00488502PROTECTING CHOICE IN CALIFORNIA 2010, A PROJECT OF PLANNED PARENTHOOD AFF OF CALIFORNIA9/2/2010
C00488429CITIZENS FOR STRENTH AND SECURITY PAC9/1/2010
C00488437CONCERNED TAXPAYERS OF AMERICA9/1/2010
C00488403TEXAS TEA PARTY PATRIOTS PAC9/1/2010
C00487470CLUB FOR GROWTH ACTION8/31/2010
C00488338AMERICAN DENTAL ASSOCIATION PAC INDEPENDENT EXPENDITURES COMMITTEE8/31/2010
C00423467VOTE OUT INCUMBENTS FOR DEMOCRACY8/30/2010
C00488486COMMUNICATIONS WORKERS OF AMERICA WORKING VOICES8/30/2010
C00483693SIERRA CLUB INDEPENDENT ACTION8/19/2010
C00487785HEADQUARTERS CMTE W HOLLYWOOD/BEV HILLS/STONEWALL DEM CLUB/STONEWALL YOUNG DEMS LTD8/18/2010
C00487744AMERICA'S FAMILIES FIRST ACTION FUND8/17/2010
C00485854LOUISIANA TRUTH PAC8/11/2010
C00486688FLORIDA IS NOT FOR SALE8/5/2010
C00487280CONSERVATIVES FOR TRUTH8/2/2010
C00486878PEOPLE'S MAJORITY8/2/2010
C00486845LEAGUE OF CONSERVATION VOTERS VICTORY FUND7/30/2010
C00482620ARIZONANS WORKING TOGETHER7/28/2010
C00487199CITIZENS FOR ECONOMIC AND NATIONAL SECURITY7/28/2010
C00484642COMMONSENSE TEN7/27/2010
C00484295CALIFORNIANS FOR FISCALLY CONSERVATIVE LEADERSHIP7/23/2010
C00485821AMERICANS FOR NEW LEADERSHIP7/9/2010
C00487363AMERICAN CROSSROADS7/9/2010
C00485011CLUB FOR GROWTH ADVOCACY INC6/17/2010

Some of these organizations file monthly reports with the FEC, while others file quarterly. Only when such reports are filed do voters have a full accounting of the individuals, corporations and other groups funding the barrage of advertisements the groups are running. In many cases, disclosure of donors will not come until after Election Day.

Even with these seismic changes in the campaign finance landscape, some groups are still seeking to avoid any donor disclosure.

Several organizations -- such as Crossroads Grassroots Political Solutions, or Crossroads GPS, a sister organization of the top conservative independent expenditure-only committee American Crossroads -- have formed under section 501(c)4 of the U.S. tax code. This designation means the group’s donors will never be reported to the FEC or to the Internal Revenue Service and that its primary purpose is supposed to be the “promotion of social welfare.” Yet, so far, this designation hasn’t kept it from spending big bucks on political messages in hotly contested races.

Democrats have pushed for legislation, known as the DISCLOSE Act, which would require advertisements to include information about the top donors financing the ads. The measure also calls for the heads of organizations that run independent expenditures to appear in the ad to approve the message, like political candidates currently do.

That legislation passed the House earlier this summer. In July, Republicans successfully filibustered the bill in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring the bill up for another vote in the Senate on Thursday, although it’s unclear if any Republicans have undergone a change of heart.
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