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Study Finds Super PACs Not Independent of Campaign Influence

by Alex Gauthier, published

Public Citizen, a non-partisan corporate and government watchdog organization, released a study that analyzed outside spending during the 2012 election. The study concluded that the reasoning behind the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v FEC, "failed on its own terms." Tweet it: Tweet

The majority opinion in the iconic 5-4 case held that election spending, which if recognized as 'independent' by legal definitions, would not pose a corrupting influence over the process. The study, titled "Super Connected," reveals a conflicting trend.

Spending by outside groups like Super PACs, organizations officially unaffiliated with a candidate committee or party committee, are recognized as 'soft money' in political spending terms. Since they are forbidden from 'coordinating' with candidates and party committees, soft money groups were immune from corrupting politicians seeking election.

Findings from the study indicate that such groups could not "plausibly be deemed Independent." This is primarily a result of the significant attention given to a single candidate or partisan agenda:

"More than half (56.4 percent) of the super PACs operating in 2012 were either devoted to a single candidate or closely allied with a national party."

Single-candidate groups like Restore Our Future, Priorities USA Action, and Americans for Prosperity, accounted for almost 75 percent ($476 million) of all spending by super PACs.

Likewise, many of the super PACs are run by close former confidants of the candidates they end up supporting. For example, Barack Obama's 'Priorities USA Action' was founded by Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney. Both left the White House shortly before the president began campaigning in earnest.

Romney-affiliated super PACs are no different. Charles Spies, treasurer for Restore Our Future, consulted for Romney's 2008 presidential campaign and might have landed a cabinet position had Romney won last November.

The spurious relationship between former campaign officials who leave their posts to charter single candidate super PACs severely tests the 'independence' that's legally assumed in order to remain eligible for infinite fundraising.

Nearly a billion dollars in outside spending asserts that 'soft money' in elections hardly had a soft impact.
"The Citizens United decision relied on the assumption that the new expenditures it permitted would be independent. The facts in this report demonstrate that much of the spending in 2012 that flowed from the decision was by groups that plainly were not independent of the candidates or parties they aided."

Critics of regulating super PAC spending argue that the amount of spending is not the cause for concern. Rather, the poor enforcement of existing coordination laws is what needs to be fixed. The subjective nature of what precisely constitutes coordination makes it an inherently difficult offense to prosecute.

Current legal strictures on coordination prevent quid pro quo or pay-to-play types of interactions, but enforcement has been lacking. The Center for Public Integrity reports that only three investigations have been launched due to suspicions of coordination since 1999, two of which resulted in minor fines.

Remaining truly 'independent' when it comes to politics may remain an elusive endeavor, though perhaps the Supreme Court will consider more heavily how corruption, or the appearance of corruption, will impact future elections.

Photo Credit: FEDOR_DZN /

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