‘Super PAC’ – increasing the political influence of corporations and unions

    The word “super PAC” is already known to political junkies, but as the presidential campaign unfolds, these new entities are likely to play a growing role in the contest and get even more attention. 

    Independent committees have been active in past presidential campaigns. (Remember the Swift Boat ads?) What’s new about these entities is that they are closely associated with a particular presidential candidate.

    They differ from the candidates’ committees, which are barred by federal law from accepting individual contributions of more than $2,500.

    John Dunbar, the managing editor for political coverage for the Center for Public Integrity said super PACs have no such burden.

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    “A super PAC can take unlimited amounts of money from corporations and labor unions and spend it, usually on ads that will help to elect or defeat a candidate,” Dunbar said.

    How do they get around contribution limits?

    For years, courts been loosening the grip of federal election law on campaign spending. The Citizens United ruling let corporate and labor unions contribute directly to campaigns.

    And a 2010 federal appeals court ruling in a case known as Speechnow permitted political committees to accept unlimited contributions provided they refrain from giving money to candidates (which standard political committees do) and don’t coordinate activities with a candidate.

    So super PACs arose which are closely associated with presidential (and other federal) candidates.

    Dunbar said it’s not exactly hard to make the connection.

    “For example, the treasurer for the biggest super PAC, which is Restore our Future, was the general counsel for Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign,” Dunbar said.

    In one case reported on by the Center for Public Integrity, Romney attended and spoke at a fundraiser for his super PAC, and because he left the room before anyone asked for super donations, he was not sanctioned.

    In a study released this week, the Center for Public Integrity found that reported super PAC spending in the presidential race so far is just under $13 million.

    Neil Oxman of the Philadelphia-based Campaign Group said the influence of super PACs is sure to grow

    “I will bet you there will be almost as much money given to Super-PACs in the presidential campaigns as the candidates themselves,” Oxman said in an interview.

    What concerns do super PACs raise about the election process?

    When super PACs run attack ads, they can leave viewers with the impression the criticism is coming from an independent group, when in fact the ads are done on behalf of a candidate who doesn’t own up to the message.

    And they make it easier for well-heeled special interests to influence the political process.

    On the positive side, super PACS do have to report their contributions and spending, unlike non-profit organizations that spend millions and legally hide their donors.

    This is part of a series called Just You Wait, which will take a look at ideas, names and phrases you may not be familiar with now, but are likely to become prominent during 2012. Listen to NewsWorks Tonight on WHYY-FM each weeknight to hear WHYY/NewsWorks journalists discussing the latest topic of Just You Wait.

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