Super PACs, a lobbyist’s dream
By Ben Tyrer
SuperPACs have become a buzzword for this election. They are groups that have raised and spent millions of dollars on one goal: helping to sway voters’ decisions to back the candidate they support. But what are they? Who are they? And what do they do? This guide should help you understand the importance of SuperPACs in this election.
So what is the PAC part of Super PAC?
PAC stands for Political Action Committee. It is an organization or pressure group that supports or opposes political parties, candidates or specific issues. If it is an issue connected to American politics, chances are there is a PAC for and against it. For example, the National Rifle Association has their own PAC (http://www.nrapvf.org/), as does the League of Conservation voters, who raise funds for environmental issues (http://www.lcv.org/).
Is there more than just one type?
Yes. PACs come in a few varieties: Connected PACs and Non-Connected PACs, who can only donate and receive specific amounts of money and Super PACs who cannot donate money directly to a candidate, but can spend and receive unlimited amounts.
- Connected PACs have been set up by certain industry groups and can only solicit money from specific people and only receive a maximum of $5000 (£3000) from any person. A connected PAC would be the Operating Engineers PAC, which supports the interests of the operating engineer union.
- Non-Connected PACs can be single-issue groups or can have a specific ideological bent, but these can receive and solicit money from anyone.
- Super PACs are a relatively new type of Pac and they are independent-expenditure only committees. This means they cannot donate any money to candidates or parties, but they can spend an unlimited amount of money in advocacy of issues or candidates, such as the Priorities USA PAC that supports Barack Obama.
How did Super PACs magic themselves into existence?
Two rulings – one by the Supreme Court, and the other by the U.S. Court of Appeals – both allowed for the birth of Super PACs. The first – Citizens United vs FEC – ruled that the government could not limit corporations free speech, and by extension, their spending in elections.
The second ruling – Speechnow.org vs FEC – ruled that “the Federal Election Campaign Act that limits the contributions that individuals may make to SpeechNow.org… violates the First Amendment.” In non-legal terms, PACs that do not donate directly to a party or candidate can raise and spend unlimited amounts.
Why have they become such a popular talking point?
Candidates may not be directly tied to Super PACs, but the groups will certainly have a big impact on increasing a candidate’s presence. For example, the conservative “Restore Our Future” Super PAC was founded by former aides of Mitt Romney with the sole purpose of getting him elected as President of the United States. Since January 1st 2011 to the time of writing it has raised $111.5M (£71M), having spent $99.1M (£56.5M) on adverts and campaigns in support of Romney.
Similarly, a Super PAC set up by a former White House Aide Bill Burton that supports President Barack Obama’s re-election called “Priorities USA Action” has raised $50.7M (£31.4M). These only represent the largest PAC’s supporting the candidates. Other Super PACs, like the Karl Rove backed “American Crossroads” has raised just under $66M (£40.9M) to get Romney elected.
What have been the main criticisms of Super PACs?
When the Supreme Court announced its decision in the ‘Citizens United vs. FEC’ back in 2010, Obama said it was “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Even the Supreme Court was divided over the issue, with Justice John Paul Stevens saying it was a grave error to treat corporate speech in the same way as human beings.
What effect can they have on an election?
Super PACs pump money into election races and this helps to increase the presence of candidates, as well as attack their opponents.
Dr. Darren Lilleker, a politics and media lecturer at Bournemouth University explained the sort of impact that Super PACs and their campaigns could have on the electorate though.
“Some of those [PACs] funded by the Oil Companies, there is one around employment rights. It talks about defending the right to have a job, as in defend the fact you don’t have employment rights, because employment rights equals losing your job,” he said. “And you can see it working very well on uneducated working class communities sadly, because it is so manipulative.”
Super PACs are increasing the coffers of a Presidential war chest, especially in key battleground areas where political ads can swing an election.
The vast sums of money have some concerned that a presidential election won’t be won, but bought.