CliffsNotes on Super PAC’s (That I Didn’t Really Understand Either)

President Obama’s fundraising gains were released this week, showing he raised $181 million in September. Yes, that’s in one month!  Presidential-contender Mitt Romney has not yet released his earnings/winnings/blessing for this period but it is estimated that he is not far behind.  Combined fundraising for both candidates will make this the most expensive Presidential race in history, with estimates for the final tab coming in at $2.5 billion.

This staggering figure is mostly due to Super PAC’s, which even in name sound like a schoolyard bully.  A bully whose real muscle will not even be seen until after this election is done, since it is the first presidential race they’ve been around for.  Which is just one of the reasons no one (other than Stephen Colbert) really understands what the heck they are.  So here are the bullet points, for all of us who can’t stay up late enough to be schooled by Comedy Central…

In 2010:

The U.S. Supreme Court decided in the case known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that government may NOT prohibit unions and corporations from making independent expenditure for political purposes. MEANING: powerful groups and lucractive businesses can not give money directly to political campaigns, but they can VIRTUALLY CREATE THEIR OWN CAMPAIGN.

Two months later, in a second case known as Speechnow.org v. FEC,  the court upheld that PACs that did not make contributions DIRECTLY to candidates or political parties could accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions, and corporations – both for profit and not-for-profit – for the purpose of making independent expenditures. MEANING: if a political group raises money for a candidate or a political belief that a candidate subscribes to, but does not give this money DIRECTLY TO A POLITICAL CAMPAIGN, they can use it to make their own campaign for the candidate or their political belief.

THESE TWO CASES gave birth to a new type of Political Action Committee (this is where the word PAC comes from) that was immediately dubbed the “Super PAC”. Super meaning big and powerful, but not necessarily fair or just.

In this new kind of Super PAC:

1.             There is no limit to how much a very rich person can give to support a cause he or she likes like, for instance: no new taxes on rich people.

2.            And this rich person can also get an entire union, that has a large amount of voters and huge sum of money at their disposal, and decide to work together – to prevent, for instance: no new taxes on rich people.

3.            And then this rich person and that union can also then get a corporate sponsor, let’s say a hedge fund on wall street that has an unthinkable amount of money at it’s disposal, and collectively they all might raise, something like – fifty million dollars and run their own commercials on TV and ads in newspapers and set up their own offices in cities around America and hit the pavement to get people to vote for a candidate – that promises, for instance: no new taxes on rich people.

Which is exactly what they are doing.  THEREFORE, THE DEFINITION OF A Super PAC IS:

“A political committee whose primary purpose is to influence elections, and which can take unlimited amounts of money, outside of federal contribution limits, from rich people, unions and corporations, pool it all together, and spend it to advocate for a candidate — as long as they are independent and not coordinated with the candidate.”

AND HOW DO WE DEFINE, “independent and not coordinated with the candidate”?

Before 2010 PAC’s or Political Action Committees were required to report their donors to the Federal Election Commission and were monitored, as a group, by the FEC.  But perhaps more importantly, the candidate’s party also monitored them because that politician’s name, honor and reputation would be at stake once he or she was taking money from a PAC.  So these original PAC’s had influence but they were well vetted and the money trail was transparent.

Today’s Super PAC’s (technically known as independent expenditure-only committees) must also report their donors to the Federal Election Commission but only on a quarterly basis and with multiple loopholes available when reporting that allow donors to remain anonymous for far more than three months.  Which means anonymous people and groups can privately (or dare I say, secretly) funnel funds towards a desired result in an election, never being revealed until a candidate is already in office.

Which means anyone – criminals, judges, big business, even foreign governments can put together their own Super PAC and create commercials touting… say, President Obama and smearing Governor Romney… from say, fourth of July through November 4th, 2012 and no one would ever know until after the campaign and election is done.

But what’s even more unsettling than that hypothetical scenario is that this 3-6 month anonymity veil is only in place if the Super PAC is a “for-profit expenditure committee.”  If a Super PAC makes itself a non-profit  it doesn’t need to report who its donors are AT ALL.

So if these groups can function anonymously, HOW DO WE KNOW IF THEY ARE INDEPENDENT FROM A CANDIDATE?

It seems the definition of “independent” when it comes to Super PAC’s is only related to their finances. Which is just plain dangerous.

The reason for prohibiting independent expenditures from donating directly to a campaign is, of course, to prevent donors from buying candidates or policy changes or favors or anything else they want from a candidate.  But there are no stipulations saying that Super PAC operators can’t have previously worked for the candidate or the party.  Or that they aren’t related, or sleeping together.  Or that they don’t run a business that desperately needs the candidate they are supporting to enact certain laws.  These treacherous scenarios are EXACTLY who is behind every single Super PAC.  Even the minimal rules that are in existence to maintain independence between Super PAC donors and candidates are full of loopholes. For instance, candidates cannot communicate or coordinate with PAC organizers, but they can speak to a group of donors at a fund-raising event and “leave the gathering before PAC planning or coordinating about fundraising occurs.”

Which is monitored by… no one if donors to that Super PAC who are at that fundraiser are not disclosed.

Super PAC’s are not just for the presidential race:

All of which leaves Americans to HOPE and ASSUME that once a President takes office he will stick to his own beliefs despite a donor or… a mob of powerful donors… giving him millions and millions and millions of dollars to do what they want.  Maybe our next despot will be able to maintain his integrity simply because he has reached the pinnacle of public service and doesn’t “need” those donors so much anymore.  But what about all the Super PAC’s supporting house, senate, gubernatorial and mayoral races?

Unlike the largest Super PAC’s, which operate with all the trappings of a presidential campaign — Web sites, spokesmen, news releases announcing major advertising buys — the smaller PACS that fight for regional seats of power often fly under the radar, barely announcing themselves to the world beyond their tag in an on-air ad. Next to nothing may ever be know about any of these groups save for the name of the person filing the incorporation papers.  Which can literally be a candidate’s parents or former colleagues – who openly funnel unmitigated amounts of money into a campaign to elect them.  Which in and of itself changes the landscape of who can even enter public service.

Moving from the Left to the Right:

President 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 criticized 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.”

But as Republican-backed Super PACs raised vastly more sums than the Democrats (Karl Rove’s two Super PAC’s have each raised more money than every other Super PAC combined,) the liberals joined the fray.  Obama announced in February 2012 that he would work with—but not coordinate with—Priorities USA Action, the Democratic Super PAC organized to help Obama win reelection.

IN SUMMATION

Obama’s initial thoughts, as a man of law himself, were probably the truest and safest bet for our country long term.  That allowing groups of rich and or powerful people to make their own campaigns for political candidates can only lead our country away from meritocracy, and our leaders away from finding out what the American people need from their public servants.

But all I keep imagining is if we required Super PAC’s to give half of their “unmarked” political donations to something slightly neutral like early education that would move us past the devastating budget cuts currently in place across the country. But much like the Electoral College, this money-oriented way of electing a president makes a booming business out of elections largely for those already prospering.  So who will fight to change it?

Might it be you?

Read More of Diane Farr’s writing about politics, pop-culture and pee-pee trees at www.GetDianeFarr.com.  Follow her at @GetDianeFarr or Facebook.com/GetDianeFarr

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