Super PACs – and the TV ads they fund – are everywhere this election.
It’s well known where these organizations came from: In January 2010, the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC threw out longstanding limits on direct corporate and union political spending. A few months later, a ruling in favor of SpeechNow.org allowed outside organizations making independent campaign expenditures to raise unlimited money as well. These two court cases paved the way for the rise of super PACs – and changed political fundraising.
But where did they get the name, super PAC? Credit for that goes to Washington journalist Eliza Newlin Carney, currently a staff writer for CQ Roll Call. We talked to her about the word’s genesis and the role of super PACs in the 2012 Election.
Before you came along, what did people call “super PACs?”
After the 2010 rulings, a couple of politically-active groups asked the Federal Election Commission for the green light to set up unrestricted PACs. It was easy to guess that these PACs would quickly take off.
At that point I started thinking about how I could write about them without making readers’ eyes glaze over. The technical, legal term for them is “independent expenditure-only Political Action Committee” – not something you want to write ten times in a story.
How did you chose the adjective “super” to describe these political action committees?
I liked “super” because it was short, sharp and punchy, and seemed to capture the notion that these groups could do a lot of things that conventional PACs could not. Traditional PACs are banned from raising more than $5,000 a pop, for example, but super PACs can collect unlimited contributions from any source, into the tens of millions. That gives them extra power politically, of course, and helps explain why they’ve transformed campaigns.
Do you have any thoughts on why the term became so popular?
On the one hand, it’s not surprising that the phrase caught on. Election laws are complicated, even turgid, so it can be challenging to write about them without getting bogged down. That makes a term like “super PAC” irresistible to reporters looking to liven things up.
On the other, I confess to some amazement at how ubiquitous the term has become. I recently did an interview on French TV, on what I’ve taken to calling “le super PAC.”
It was interesting to watch the term trickle up from an inner circle of campaign-finance experts, lawyers and academics to mainstream publications. When I saw a story referencing “super PACs” in Bloomberg Business Week a few months after I had started writing about them, I knew it was starting to stick. When Stephen Colbert set up his own super PAC, that was another watershed. Now the term is in the latest edition of the AP Stylebook, and I’ve read that the dictionary might be next – though I’ll believe that when I see it.
What has been the most surprising appearance or use of the word that you’ve seen?
I was amused recently to stumble on an explanation of super PACs on the website “Dummies.com.” These are the folks who put out the distinctive yellow-and-black paperbacks with titles like “Auto Repair for Dummies,” and “Web Design for Dummies.”
How have super PACs changed our political system? How important is their role today?
Super PACs have injected multi-million-dollar contributions from wealthy CEOs, billionaires and corporate titans into the system, something we haven’t seen since before the post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s. In the GOP presidential primary, super PACs were widely credited with keeping candidates such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in the race much longer than they might have otherwise been able to hang on.
While super PACs have garnered a lot of attention in the presidential contest, their greatest impact may be in congressional and even state legislative races. That’s where a last minute, seven-figure ad buy can really tilt the outcome. As the New York Times recently reported, a new crop of lesser-known super PACs focused on specific candidates has started spending heavily in some individual House races. That same story made the eye-popping statement that through early October, outside groups had spent seven times more than they had at the same point in 2010. In some cases, these super PACs will outspend the candidates themselves. It’s forced candidates, parties and their outside allies to raise and spend money much earlier, dramatically front-loading the campaign season.
Super PACs are only half of the story, however. The Citizens United and SpeechNow.org rulings also freed up nonprofits, ushering in a new generation of what one tax expert has called “super (c)4s.” These are 501(c)4 nonprofits that say they’re promoting the social welfare, but that run multi-million dollar campaigns targeting candidates with hard-hitting ads that are indistinguishable from campaign ads. Because the Internal Revenue Service has neither the resources nor the will to police these groups, which face no disclosure rules, secret political spending has exploded. That, too, has not been seen since Watergate.
What are you covering right now? Does it involve super PACs?
In these final weeks before Election Day, I am writing a lot about political money – and yes, super PACs are part of my daily bread. But I’m increasingly writing about these “super (c)4s” that I mentioned. I have argued that secret money may emerge as the defining trend of this election. Regulating these nonprofit groups will be tricky, since drawing the line between “social welfare” and “political activity” can be harder than it looks without violating the First Amendment. I’d like to see Republicans and Democrats stop talking past one another and start seriously grappling with this difficult problem.
What makes this election different from previous ones you’ve covered?
This election is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Analysts who argue that the impact of Citizens United has been overblown are living in an ivory tower.
The two trends unleashed by Citizens United – unrestricted spending and secret money – make for a scandal waiting to happen. It’s not far-fetched to predict that the next big scandal may well involve foreign money. One of the unusual developments we’ve seen lately is the transfer of large sums between politically active nonprofits, possibly in an effort to obscure the source or scale of their spending. That suggests that some nonprofits themselves may be in the dark about where their own money originated.
Fortunately, we are seeing a real flowering of political journalism in this arena. This used to be a beat that I covered alongside a relatively small handful of other reporters. Now I’ve got plenty of company, and the political money stories coming out of major newspapers and investigative nonprofits are breaking new ground.
Social media play a role in this by tapping the power of the crowd to aggregate information about TV ad buys and secretive groups. This is a saving grace at a time when it’s harder than ever to follow the money.