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Dhaka Tribune

A riddle that’s called Super PAC

Update : 24 Jan 2016, 06:46 PM

What is it?

A political action committee (PAC), is the name given to any private group organised and funded with the goal of electing a political candidate or advancing a legislative agenda. According to US electoral laws (known as Federal Election Campaigning Act or FECA), PACs can only accept donations from individuals, and there’s an annual limit of $5000.

Two landmark court cases — Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission (FEC), and SpeechNow.org vs FEC — in 2010 paved the way for “supersize PACs” (Super PACs in short). The rulings from these cases allowed corporations, unions, and individuals to donate unlimited amounts of cash to “independent expenditure-only committees”, official title for the Super PACs.

Super PACs are required to disclose their donors and are not allowed to coordinate with the candidates or agendas they advocate.

Difference between a PAC and a Super PAC

Where a super-PAC differs from a PAC is that it must be independent from a candidate and his or her campaign. Super-PACs cannot donate money to or coordinate directly with the campaign. Instead, the money raised is spent to help a candidate get elected through ads, robocalls (automated telephone calls which delivers a recorded message, typically on behalf of political parties or candidates), outreach, and voter turnout efforts.

According to OpenSecrets.org, during the 2012 US presidential election race, the pro-Romney super PAC Restore America has raised $12.2m dollars, and it released numerous advertisements right before Iowa caucus attacking Newt Gingrich, another GOP front-runner in the race.

As of January 24, 2016, 2,076 groups organised as super PACs have reported total receipts of $322,404,169 and total independent expenditures of $152,132,068 in the 2016 cycle.

Legal framework

The FECA institutionalised a process of financing candidate campaigns directly through donations from individuals and interest groups, with the party playing a peripheral role. Since its inception, party contributions and spending on behalf of candidates has typically been in the range of 5%–6% for challengers and just 1%–2% for incumbents.

Super PACs influence in US elections

The 2010 midterm elections were the first test of the effects of the so-called Super PACs. Some $80m was spent by Super PACs during the midterm election cycle. Republican candidates largely reaped the benefits of the PACs’ largesse, and Republicans won control of the House. Democrats cried foul, saying the elections were being bought by deep-pocketed individuals and companies and questioned what the donors expected in return for their contribution. But it was not long before Democrats established their own super PACs. In the 2014 midterm campaign, 1,360 Super PACs raisded nearly $700m, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Loopholes

The already lax rules governing Super PACs are riddled with loopholes. For example, candidates cannot communicate or coordinate with PAC organisers, but they can speak to a group of donors at a fund-raising event and leave the gathering before any planning or coordinating about fundraising occurs.

Noted satirist Stephen Colbert helped to educate the US public about PACs, famously mocking them on his show, The Colbert Report. In fact, he created his own super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which collected more than $1m. The PAC ran ads in South Carolina that took aim at Mitt Romney.

The FEC is tasked with regulating Super-PACs, but is often divided along partisan lines, and as a result, little enforcing took place so far.

Democrats jump on the Super PAC bandwagon

US President Barack Obama was an early critic of the Citizens United ruling, calling it a “threat to democracy” and a “victory” for Wall Street and Big Business. He further criticised the ruling in his 2010 State of the Union address, saying the decision would allow “special interests—including foreign companies—to spend without limit in our elections.” He went on: “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests.”

However, Obama announced in February 2012 that he worked with—but not coordinate with—Priorities USA Action, the Democratic Super PAC organised to help Obama win reelection. He also said that members of his administration would speak at the PAC’s fundraisers. The Ready for Hillary PAC, created to encourage Hillary Clinton to run for president, raised about $15m from 135,000 donors.

In May 2015, Clinton announced that she’ll support Priorities USA Action, a Democratic Super PAC, during her presidential campaign. She’s the first Democratic presidential hopeful to endorse the powerful fund-raising groups.

Despite the rule that candidates cannot closely associate with super PACs, the 2012 presidential campaign clearly illustrated that candidates on both sides of the aisle plan to push the limits of campaign finance regulations in future races. 

 

References: 1. The Wall Street Journal, “How Much Are Super PACs Spending?” 2. US News, “Are Super PACs Harming U.S. Politics?” 3. La Raja, R. (2013). Why Super PACs: How the American Party System Outgrew the Campaign Finance System. The Forum, 10(4). http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/forum-2013-0009

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