Big Money Politics: the Evolution of Super PACs

January 28, 2012 in The World Today, United States

Getty Images

By Beatrice Nielsen

Long ago (before 2010), it used to be that political action committees (PACs) were corporations’ and unions’ key to supporting federal candidates independently of a campaign. Because spending company treasury funds on political candidates or causes violates federal law, political action committees came into being.

Individual members of PACs were only permitted to donate up to $5,000 per year, but the PAC itself could donate unlimited funds to an independent cause—i.e., not directly coordinated with a federal candidate. They may spend unlimited funds in support of or against a candidate, but never directly affiliated with a candidate’s campaign. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, passed in 2002, determined that no “electioneering communications”—such as an ad for or against a certain candidate—could be funded by a private corporation 30 days prior to primaries and 60 days prior to general elections.

In 2010, Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission changed the face of PACs. This Supreme Court settlement stipulates that the government can no longer place limitations on corporation and union spending for political reasons, and, most importantly, that corporations can fund PACs directly from their treasuries, bypassing the need for donors and the general limitations of fundraising.

The case was brought about after the conservative group Citizens United produced a highly critical documentary about then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Citizens United was told that releasing the film would be in violation of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. The argument on behalf of expanding the influence of PACs was simple: if the Hillary film was banned, the courts would legally be allowed to ban books, websites, and a litany of other vital expressions of speech/press produced by a corporation or union criticizing a candidate. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United; they did, however, fail to notice the extreme political implications of such a ruling.

President Obama said, not long after the 5-4 ruling, that the Citizens United case “gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington – while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates.” You see, the difference between a run-of-the-mill PAC (such as the National Education Association) and a super PAC is not small: it is a question of millions of dollars in soft-money donations.

President Obama accurately predicted the political repercussions of Citizens United. In the 2012 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, the political ploys have displayed characteristics of glamourized machine politics. Restore Our Future, the Mitt Romney-backing super PAC, has bombarded Romney’s main opponent, Newt Gingrich, with several critical television ads. Romney can wash his hands of the criticisms in public; the super PAC is not directly affiliated with his campaign, they just undermine his opponent. Mr. Gingrich also has a super PAC cheering him on—a multibillionaire couple from Nevada has pledged a staggering amount of money to the Gingrich-backing super PAC, Winning Our Future.

So, what does this mean for politics? I understand that politics has always been about funding—but with Citizens United and follow-up cases, campaign finance is forever changed. Those in support claim that this new breed of super PACs increases transparency in elections. My gut feeling is that this will lend no clearness to the political system, but will rather shroud it in an impenetrable darkness.


This post reflects the author’s personal opinions, not the opinions of Arizona Model United Nations.