A brief history of SuperPACs
SuperPACs are a creation of recent court rulings that changed the way campaign finance laws work, with wide-ranging consequences. Beginning with Citizens United v FEC, the federal courts have reshaped how federal races are run. And a federal court ruling in March of this year allows SuperPACs to engage in state and local elections as well.
Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission was a court case about a non-profit entity (which called itself "Citizens United") that sought to sell a movie about a federal candidate through pay-per-view cable channels. In order to promote the movie, the non-profit wanted to broadcast ads. Because the movie was about a candidate, and the ads were to run in the days and weeks before an election, Citizens United ran up against federal law forbidding corporations to make expenditures about candidates around elections. They asked US Supreme Court to decide whether the organization could advertise its movie.
The Court’s opinion, to allow corporate spending in elections, not only overturned a century of federal law forbidding corporations from engaging in elections, it also changed the meaning of terms already in law that have created loopholes in disclosure as well as contribution limits. For example, "Independent expenditures" was a term meaning spending that was uncoordinated with a candidate. The Court declared that it meant there was no risk of corruption from such spending, and therefore no justification for regulation.
The Court ruling also gave rise to new forms of corporations that are now raising money from donors with very particular interests in what government does, while also moving the relationships between these donors and candidates outside of the public’s line of sight. There are over 500 "SuperPACs" that claim to be independent of candidates and therefore unregulated in their fundraising. But many of these "SuperPACs" are disturbingly close to individual candidates, in ways that give plenty of justification for corruption fears.
This week, ICPR will issue a series of blog posts about Citizens United, SuperPACs, and changes to campaign finance generally. First up, we’ll look at what it means to be “independent” of a candidate. Then, we’ll look at some of the “corporations” that are giving to candidates. Later, we’ll look at the implications for how best to assure the public that elections matter and campaign contributions are not merely a legalized means of bribing public officials.