What's So "Super" about Super PACs?

Super PACs are the breakout stars of the 2012 election cycle. Like one of Newt Gingrich's mistresses, they're technically independent of the candidates they support but can still besmirch a reputation. In recent weeks, Gingrich has called on Mitt Romney to disown statements made by the “millionaire friends” who've donated to his super PAC, while Newt himself took heat for an ad produced by a pro-Gingrich PAC slamming Romney’s record at Bain Capital.

Super PACs made their debut during the 2010 midterm elections, following court rulings that loosened restrictions on key areas of campaign finance. If you spent your weekend discussing farm subsidies with policy wonks, then you will probably want to turn to this helpful piece for a full-monty version of the legal evolution of the super PAC. But if you have a normal social life, here’s what you need to know to get by at the next Washington dinner party:

What are they?

Super PACs are described as “non-connected political action committees” by the bureaucrats over at the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Political action committees have been around since the late 1970s, following the Supreme Court's decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which ruled that money is a form of speech and that private individuals have the right to promote political causes using their own funds. But where once individuals were limited to donations of $5,000, and corporations didn’t have the same free-speech rights as individuals, there are now no limits on how much money can be poured into a PAC, and you don’t even have to have a beating heart to contribute. PACs can solicit as many funds for a cause or candidate as they like, as long as they fill out this four-page form within 10 days of raising or spending more than $1,000 in connection with federal elections.

Are there non-super PACs?

You may be wondering: If there are non-connected PACs, are there connected ones as well? Yes. They’re called “separate segregated funds” and have typically been established by labor unions and corporations and can only take money from people associated with these organizations. But this kind of PAC doesn’t really matter anymore because …

What's the Citizens United connection?

Contrary to public perception, the landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United was not solely responsible for the rise of super PACs, but it did help them proliferate. Citizens United held that corporations have the same free-speech rights as individuals, meaning that they could give freely to support candidates or causes of their choosing so long as there was no official coordination with the campaign. But what really threw the floodgates open was the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision three months later in SpeechNow.org v. FEC.  That ruling did away with the $5,000 limit once imposed on donations to PACs, and because Citizens said that corporations are people too … well, you get the picture. If private individuals have been allowed to make it rain for candidates for more than 30 years, Citizens and Speechnow.org took the party to the champagne room.

Who runs these things?

Pretty much anyone can start a super PAC as long as they fill out the paperwork correctly, but the people at the helm in this year’s presidential election have personal ties to their candidate. They’re the prototypical boys in the back room—the kind of gentlemen who drink cocktails in mahogany-paneled bars and say “fuck” a lot. For instance: Charles Spies, a registered Washington lobbyist and general counsel to the 2008 Romney campaign, appears as the signatory on documents establishing the Romney-associated PAC, Restore Our Future. The super PAC associated with Newt Gingrich, Winning Our Future, lists Rebecca Burkett, a former Gingrich aide, as its chair, while Paul Begala, a prominent Democratic strategist of Clinton-era fame is the head of the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action. 

Who donates to them?

Schmucks like you and me? We can, but typically the PAC donors that make the biggest difference are the stiffs in suits. Much has been made of billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s $10 million donation to pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future, while the donor roll of the Romney-affiliated Restore Our Future shows that its money comes from a number of investment funds, holding companies, and wealthy individuals, including former compadres from Bain Capital and evocatively named groups like Jet Set Sports Holdings. Much of the money on the Democratic side of the 2012 PAC-attack has been flowing in from the golden streets of Hollywood, including a $2 million donation from Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of Dreamworks Animation, who gave to pro-Obama Priorities USA Action.

What are they doing with the money?

Buying a whole lot of ads on TV and printing up fliers predicting the impending collapse of American civilization. Super PACs can basically perform the same functions as a campaign. It’s a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil setup.  PACs must ensure that all their distributed material includes a disclaimer stating the PAC's name, both in full and its abbreviation, and make clear who they’re for or against—what the FEC calls “express advocacy.” A grassroots get-out-the-vote organization is well within the purview of a PAC, and the 2012 election is sure to have a number of them sending volunteers door to door.

What do they have to report?

Super PACs don't operate with impunity, but just about. They must file reports disclosing donations and spending, but the rules aren't all that stringent. According to the FEC, PACs "have the option to file these reports quarterly or monthly, and may change their filing frequency as often as once a year." This form is what PACs must file, which asks for the name of donors and the amount given.

Why do people think they're bad?

As John McCain, co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law, succinctly said of PACs: “We have these incredible amounts of money, and I guarantee you there will be a scandal.” There’s a visceral reaction to seeing money flow so easily, especially in post-bailout America.

How many of them are there?

A lot—299! You can see a big ol' list here, including a recent filing by Citizens Against Super PACs Inc., which pledges to raise unlimited funds but not use them. God knows that the arch-ironic vote has been sadly underrepresented in recent elections.

Why do they have such dumb, vague names?

Winning Our Future, Restore Our Future, The Red White and Blue Fund—as homecoming-dance committees well know, coming up with an original name for something boring is a tough business. In the end, obfuscation is the game for PACs, though pro-Obama Priorities USA Action could have at least gone with a grammatical name.

Will Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown’s pact to limit outside funds in their Massachusetts Senate seat battle have any effect on the impact of PACs this election season?

Probably not, but bless their hearts for trying. Because PACs are legally prohibited from coordinating with campaigns, Brown and Warren don’t have any control.

What's with Stephen Colbert's super PAC?

In what is surely the most well-funded political parody in U.S. history, the Comedy Central star officially registered his super PAC with the FEC as Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. It’s raised more than a million dollars, some of which was used to fund ads in South Carolina promoting GOP primary-campaign dropout Herman Cain—one ad featured elderly women in sequined leotards along with lingering close-ups of Colbert himself. With a high-rated television show as his vehicle, Colbert’s comedic push to expose the shadiness of the super PAC has doubtless raised the general awareness.

Are super PACs with us forever?

If the majority of Americans had their way, super PACs would be gone tomorrow. But getting around a Supreme Court decision like Citizens United is tricky business, and some think that the only solution for reforming campaign finance is to pass a constitutional amendment banning the undue influence of money in elections. Because the unfavorable poll numbers cut across party lines, such a move might be possible, and such amendments have already been introduced in both the House and Senate—the most recent in late January, by Senators Max Baucus and John Tester. In the meantime, though, there's no way to escape them.