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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Super PACs in Federal Elections: Overview and Issues for Congress

R. Sam Garrett
Specialist in American National Government

Super PACs emerged after the U.S. Supreme Court permitted unlimited corporate and union spending on elections in January 2010 (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). Although not directly addressed in that case, related, subsequent litigation (SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission) and Federal Election Commission (FEC) activity gave rise to a new form of political committee. These entities, known as super PACs or independent-expenditure-only committees (IEOCs), have been permitted to accept unlimited contributions and make unlimited expenditures aimed at electing or defeating federal candidates. Super PACs may not contribute funds directly to federal candidates or parties.

This report explores what super PACs are, how they developed, what they raised and spent in the 2010 election cycle, and preliminary analysis of 2012 activity. As of this writing, Congress has not amended the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) to formally recognize the role of super PACs. No legislation introduced in the 112th Congress focuses specifically on super PACs, but some bills contain relevant provisions. H.R. 3585 (Price, N.C.) proposes new disclaimer requirements that would apply to ads funded by super PACs and other entities. The same is true for a revised version of the DISCLOSE Act, H.R. 4010 (Van Hollen), introduced in the House in February 2012. Two Senate companion measures (S. 2219; S. 3369) have been introduced by Senator Whitehouse. The DISCLOSE Act would also require additional funding disclosure that could affect super PACs. The FEC has issued advisory opinions, but has not yet approved regulations on the subject.

Despite limited policy action on super PACs, these new entities are quickly occupying a major place in federal elections. In just 10 months of operation in 2010, almost 80 super PACs emerged, spending a total of approximately $90 million—more than $60 million of which went to elect or defeat federal candidates through independent expenditures. Super PAC financial activities appear likely to be even more ambitious in 2012. Approximately 600 super PACs are currently registered with the FEC. Some of the most prominent such groups are reportedly staffed by operatives with close ties to 2012 presidential campaigns. As of September 2012, the groups had reported spending more than $236 million for the 2012 cycle. Various issues related to super PACs may be relevant as Congress considers how or whether to pursue legislation or oversight on the topic. These include relationships with other political committees and organizations, transparency, and independence from campaigns.

For those advocating their use, super PACs represent freedom for individuals, corporations, and unions to contribute as much as they wish for independent expenditures that advocate election or defeat of federal candidates. Opponents of super PACs contend that they represent a threat to the spirit of modern limits on campaign contributions designed to minimize potential corruption.

Date of Report: September 12, 2012
Number of Pages: 36
Order Number: R42042
Price: $29.95

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