Super PACs: Ethics and the Modern Campaign

March 5, 2012 By

For anyone living in Washington, D.C., it’s impossible to escape the political chatter that seems to touch every aspect of daily life. This is truer than ever in an election year; the city is already preoccupied with dissecting the merits and faults of each candidate. This, at a time when many Americans are only vaguely aware of Santorum’s conservative platform and Romney’s business background. But there’s another component to the 2012 elections—one that is oft discussed in Washington and one that is the central focus of my work at the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit investigative newsroom—and that component is super PACs.

The result of Citizens United vs. FEC and SpeechNow vs. FEC, two landmark decisions by the Supreme Court, super PACs are political action committees that can accept unlimited contributions from both corporations and people. They can use this money to buy ads directly supporting or opposing a candidate, so long as there is no coordination between the two parties.

And raise money they have: the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC Restore Our Future raised $36.8 million through the end of January, and the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action raised $4.5 million. Restore Our Future has raised nearly one-tenth the amount of money raised by three of the last four major presidential candidates—and the election is still months away. Even more surprising: several super PACs recently out-raised the candidates they support.

The federal limit on donations to presidential candidates is $2,500 per primary election and $2,500 per general election, so the maximum amount an individual can contribute directly to a candidate is $5,000. However, Citizens United and SpeechNow effectively nullify this restriction. To rack up their massive piles of contributions, most of the presidential super PACs have relied on a few key donors, many of whom are contributing upwards of $1 million. Some of the top donors to these groups are:

  • Harold Simmons, CEO of Contran Corporation, $11.2 million
  • Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, $10 million
  • Texas home builder Bob Perry, $3.6 million

Non-presidential super PACs, which support a political agenda rather than a specific candidate, are equally adept at fundraising. Some of the largest non-presidential PACs, in terms of fundraising, are:

  • American Crossroads (started by Karl Rove), $23.4 million
  • the progressive American Bridge 21st Century, $3.7 million
  • AFL-CIO Workers’ Voices PAC, $3.7 million

Super PACs operate within the shadowy world of campaign finance law. Between the various classifications of IRS-designated non-profits—527s, 501(c)(4)s and hard-money PACs among them, it becomes difficult to “follow the money” and to be sure of who is connected to whom. It is also unclear that the prescribed firewall between candidates and their super PACs exists. Carl Forti, co-founder of Restore Our Future, was Romney’s political director in 2008. Priorities USA Action founder Bill Burton was President Obama’s campaign press secretary in 2008 and was later named White House deputy press secretary. Similar examples abound within the other presidential super PACs.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours in recent months steeping myself in this world and reporting the facts. Frankly, the facts are mind-blowing: multi-million dollar donations, corporate money influencing presidential elections and a potential for coordination that is too great to ignore. Some believe that it’s perfectly acceptable for corporate money to play this great a role in elections. But even those who have the power to make massive donations question the ethics of that option.

As top donor Adelson told Forbes in February, “I’m against very wealthy ­people attempting to or influencing elections. But as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it.”

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    Delaware native Alexandra Duszak is a 2011 Honors graduate of the University of Delaware, where she was executive editor of The Review, the University’s student newspaper. She is currently participating in a fellowship at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, DC.

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