In 2002, Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold co-authored the McCain-Feingold Act to reform the way political parties accepted soft money contributions. This act was meant to limit the flow of money into the political arena and to limit special interest groups from influencing government and law by funneling money to candidates through political action committees (PACs) and Super PACs. The goal was to restrain the amount of money political parties raised and spent on a candidate and to restrict the growth of issue advocacy ads.
Though applauded at the time as a bipartisan effort to curb campaign spending, the McCain-Feingold Act has faced many legal challenges. These legal challenges resulted in key provisions being overturned and paving the way for Super PACs to increase their influence on political campaigns and issues.
What Are Super PACs?
Super PACs are large-scale political action committees that raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions, and individuals. However, they may not work, contribute or coordinate directly with a candidate or a campaign. While only Americans and immigrants with green cards can make personal contributions to campaigns and political action committees, foreign companies can use American divisions within their companies to form their own political action committees and collect donations from their American employees.
Federal Election Committee (FEC)
All Super PACs register with the Federal Election Committee (FEC) and must file regular reports on the donations they receive. The FEC website allows you to search campaign and political action committee finance reports. This feature allows you to see how much money a Super PAC collected and spent and how that money was used during an election cycle.
Each candidate that runs for office establishes their own political action committee. A candidate’s PAC is bound by federal election law and limited to individual election cycle limits of up to $5,000 per individual, as a combined total for both the primary election and the general election.
Candidates are required to establish a campaign treasurer once the campaign receives $500 in campaign donations or has spent over $500 on campaign expenditures. To ease ethical concerns, most campaigns appoint someone other than the candidate as the candidate’s PAC treasurer position. However, there is nothing to prevent a candidate from acting as their own treasurer.
Super PACs are technically expenditure-only committees. They are relatively easy to create under federal election law. Creating a Super PAC means the treasurer will be required to file regular reports to the FEC about cash on hand, donors, and expenditures, for the life of the committee. This requirement remains in effect even during periods when there are no donations or expenditures.
While you can search for information about specific Super PACs on the FEC’s website, OpenSecrets.org is another great resource for learning about Super PACs. Not only do they report on the Super PACs but Open Secrets makes it easy to find how much special interest nonprofit organizations, individuals, and corporations have donated to these super political action committees.
As of Election Day, 2018, around 2,240 Super PACs raised roughly $1.3 billion dollars and spent over $800 million on the 2018 General Election.
Benefits of Accepting Super PAC Funding
For several decades now, money has been flowing toward our nation’s political machine in increasing amounts. Attempts to regulate the flow of “free speech” money have been met with court cases and constitutional challenges. The process has weakened the laws trying to govern the amount of money a candidate can accept.
Levels the Playing Field
Whether or not you believe “free speech” equals money, one thing is certain: “free speech” money is the current arrangement for our political infrastructure. Most ordinary Americans can’t afford to give the candidate of their choice a $5000 donation, the maximum limit for annual donations to a regular PAC or individual candidate. So if you’re a candidate, Super PACs help to level the playing field. Because there is no limitation on individual donations, these committees can easily raise a tremendous amount of money in a smaller span of time by raising funds from wealthier donors.
That money is used to buy television, radio, and print ads, and is increasingly making an impact on with internet ads, especially on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. With these greater funds, they help new candidates compete against an incumbent candidate, particularly if they’re unpopular.
Beto O’Rourke electrified the country by running against Ted Cruz for his U.S. Senate seat. As part of his campaign pledge to voters, O’Rourke stated that he would not accept donations from Super PACs, as an attempt to limit special interest groups from “buying” a candidate for office. This popular pledge guaranteed that O’Rourke received millions of contributions in small dollar donor amounts, helped by several of his town hall appearances going viral on social media. Without that extra boost in visibility, though, O’Rourke would have severely limited his ability to compete by not allowing Super PAC contributions to his campaign.
Even though by law they are not allowed to coordinate with a candidate or a campaign, their indirect impact is undeniable. Because they have a much larger budget and can purchase television, radio and internet advertisements, they can influence an election on behalf of a candidate or a candidate’s position on a specific issue.
Major Donor Transparency
While there are workarounds for hiding a donation to a Super PAC, the major donors that contribute directly to certain PACs are easily found on FEC filing reports. It’s much easier to see at a glance where the money is coming from, especially with individuals and corporations.
Controversies Surrounding Super PACs
No matter how it is donated, money in politics causes controversy and is often accompanied by corruption. Super PACs continue to gain a bad reputation based on the way they raise money and how they spend it.
The single biggest controversy surrounding Super PACs is determining where the donations are coming from when they originate from a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, a 501(c)(5) union, or a 501(c)(6) trade association. These donations are referred to as dark money because those types of 501(c) organizations are not required to disclose their donors. These organizations can also receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals, and donors.
Timeliness of Investigations
Like with dark money, Super PACs appear to be corrupting the political arena with little consequence when investigations take place over a longer period than election cycles last. Whenever candidates, campaigns and Super PACs seem to collaborate in illegal or unethical ways, there must be an investigation. Because investigations take time, they are often completed long after a candidate has either won or lost a campaign. The person guilty of the offense is then merely fined for their actions. The punishment is hardly equal to the damages these crimes cause to democracy. These illegal collaborations are difficult to monitor. That often means that the slap on the hand is worth the potential rewards for candidates.
Citizens United and Corporate Donations
Decided in 2010, Citizens United v. FEC remains one of the most controversial campaign finance law rulings ever determined by the Supreme Court. By a vote of 5 to 4, the Supreme Court ruled that political speech is free speech. This meant that corporations and unions could not be prevented from financially supporting or denouncing candidates during an election cycle. The Supreme Court’s majority opinion said that restricting corporations in this way would be an infringement on their first amendment rights.
This ruling opened the floodgates for corporations to contribute freely to Super PACs, helping the candidates that would support their interests. Even though unions can also give freely, their impact is far more limited than a corporation’s power, making it easier for corporations to have a louder voice in professional politics. This financial power in elections helps corporations limit government regulations and oversight of the business sector by influencing the winning candidates.
Candidates have a difficult enough time raising money to get their individual message out. Sure, attacking their opposing candidate helps them to establish how they’re different, but those attacks cost money that a campaign will first try to use in other ways. Negative ads make a big impact. Consider the Congressional Leadership Fund, a conservative-leaning group, who spent over $137 million during the 2018 Midterm Election. Their expenditures included spending over $126 million dollars in ads attacking Democrats and only $10 million dollars in ads supporting Republicans.
The Polarization of our Political System
Just like negative ads, Super PACs contribute to the polarization of our politics. With more money being spent on campaigns, more elected officials are feeling the pressure to meet the demands of the contributors that helped them get elected, whether through direct or indirect contributions.
But the people willing to contribute to Super PACs will more likely be ardent supporters of the most opposing sections of the political spectrum. This sets up an inability to compromise, with Congress becoming more deadlocked and the American people becoming more angry and apathetic to our political system.
Until ordinary citizens challenge our government to limit the amounts of money in elections, money will continue to be a source of controversy and corruption. While most candidates want to take the high road and refuse money from Super PACs, they risk losing to better-funded campaigns when they do.