Study shows Super PACs made mockery of campaign law

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The court further assumed that legally defined independent expenditures are independent in reality. But this did not prove true in 2012. Any reasonable observer would agree that many super PACs and other unregulated groups active in 2012 were not really independent of the candidates or parties they aided, even if they met the FEC’s test for independence. Many of these groups essentially acted as second campaign committees that were not subject to contribution limits.

The data support this conclusion. Nearly 50 percent of unregulated outside groups in 2012 aided just one candidate, a study released today by Public Citizen shows. Even among groups that worked exclusively on congressional races, more than 50 percent spent their resources to support a single candidate.

While a single-candidate focus does not prove that a group did not act independently, it strains credulity that many groups would work on just one race — especially just one congressional race — unless there were connections between the group and its favored candidate. A closer look confirms these suspicions. Many super PACs were run by friends, family or former staffers of the candidate they aided. In one instance, a candidate acknowledged that a super PAC that spent more than $900,000 assisting him was “set up by the professionals who run my campaign.”

Meanwhile, 10 party-allied entities were responsible for nearly 30 percent of spending by unregulated groups in 2012. These were not merely interest groups with partisan leanings. Instead, they were created for the specific purpose, often explicitly stated, of helping one of the national parties. Contributions to these groups essentially marked the return of soft money, the unregulated contributions to the parties that Congress banned in 2002.
Single-candidate and party-allied groups spent $634.3 million in the 2012 election cycle, accounting for more than 65 percent of all unregulated groups’ spending.

Perhaps the most blatant assaults on the integrity of laws limiting contributions were by Priorities USA and Restore Our Future, the super PACs devoted to President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The ties between the presidential campaigns and their super PACs were beyond dispute. But while casino magnate Sheldon Adelson could contribute only $5,000 to Romney’s official campaign, he and his wife gave $30 million to Restore Our Future.

Meanwhile, the quasi-party groups resumed some of the most unctuous practices from the soft money era. When it upheld the soft money ban, the Supreme Court noted with dismay the parties’ practice of furnishing “menus of opportunities for access to would-be soft-money donors, with increased prices reflecting an increased level of access.” These practices reemerged in 2012. During the Democratic convention, for instance, a super PAC solicitation offered a menu of rewards to would-be donors, topped by six tickets to a “Brunch with Democratic leaders” for those giving $100,000.

The connections between super PACs, parties and candidates underscore the need for the courts to enforce a little known law that bans federal contractors from making political contributions. For that reason, Public Citizen today filed a complaint against Chevron Corp. for making a $2.5 million contribution to a super PAC tied to the GOP.

Ironically, the court’s assumption that independent expenditures would actually be independent was probably about right—until it handed down the Citizens United decision. Before Citizens United enabled outside groups to accept unlimited contributions, most third-party spenders were traditional political action committees that were subject to contribution limits. These limits prevented candidates and parties from setting up ancillary committees outside of the campaign finance system. Such restrictions no longer apply.

There are plenty of reasons to dispute the court’s core assumption that truly independent expenditures financed with large contributions would not engender corruption. But proving that point is not necessary to discredit the vision put forth in Citizens United. The manifest absence of independence in the new spending the court permitted is sufficient to do so.

Lincoln is the research director of the Congress Watch division of Public Citizen.