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Thursday, April 11, 2013

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, and what they raised and spent in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. As of this writing, Congress has not amended the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) to recognize formally the role of super PACs. No legislation introduced thus far in the 113
th Congress focuses specifically on super PACs, but some bills contain relevant provisions. H.R. 270 (Price, N.C.) would bar super PAC fundraising by federal candidates and officeholders. The latest version of the DISCLOSE Act, H.R. 148 (Van Hollen), proposes new disclaimer requirements that would apply to ads funded by super PACs and other entities. At the agency level, the FEC has issued advisory opinions, but has not yet approved regulations governing super PACs.

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 activity increased sharply in 2012; more than 400 active super PACs spent more than $600 million directly supporting or opposing candidates. 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: April 4, 2013
Number of Pages: 31
Order Number: R42042
Price: $29.95

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