Super PACs, those fundraising behemoths critics say have the potential to sway voters and the 2012 election, recently released the amount of donations they have received since the start of the year. It's not insignificant: OpenSecrets.org reviewed the filings provided by 313 super PACs and calculated that they have spent a combined $46.2 million in the 2012 election cycle so far.
"Restore Our Future," the political action group that supports Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, raised more than $30.2 million, a record for the 313 super PACs reporting donations. The Newt Gingrich-backed super PAC "Winning Our Future" took in $2.1 million, and the "American Crossroads" committee, the conservative group linked to GOP strategist Karl Rove, collected $18.7 million since Jan 1. By comparison, "Priorities USA Action," a super PAC that supports President Obama's re-election, raised just $4.4 million in all of 2011.
Super PACs came into being after the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission. Essentially, that sweeping 2010 decision determined that corporations, labor unions and individuals could give unlimited money to political groups to spend on elections. The Supreme Court determined the free speech protections individuals have, courtesy of the Constitution, would now apply to corporations, too. Super PACs cannot directly coordinate with political candidates, but they're often viewed as "campaign surrogates" that give unfettered advertising dollars to media outlets in support or opposition of a particular candidate.
Many wealthy individuals, from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, have given millions to super PACs. Prior to Citizens United, political action groups were allowed to accept money from corporations, but restrictions were placed on the amount of the largesse and the timing of the donations. Super PACs are required to submit monthly or quarterly filings to the FEC, but are not compelled to disclose the identities of all of their donors.
Super PACs have already shown the tremendous influence they have on elections and candidates. Both Romney and Gingrich have been pilloried by each others' super PACs this primary season. Super PACs have also been criticized for the personal relationships many of the groups' officers have with the candidates. For example, Rick Tyler, a longtime Gingrich aide, was hired by the Gingrich-backed "Winning Out Future" super PAC to lead its fundraising efforts.
According to the Wesleyan Media Project, political advertisements from third parties have increased 1,600 percent since 2008. An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that the average donation to a super PAC this year has been $35,000 -- a marked difference compared with the maximum $2,500 an individual can donate to a presidential campaign.
Two years after Citizens United changed the political landscape, a growing movement has emerged to challenge the decision and ultimately overturn it.
Jeff Clements, a Boston-based lawyer and author of "Corporations Are Not People" co-founded the nonpartisan "Free Speech For People" campaign for one explicit reason -- to reverse Citizens United. In an interview with The Daily Ticker's Aaron Task, Clements explains why in his view Citizens United has become one of the most "terrible and reckless" decisions ever passed by the Supreme Court and talks about the consequences of unfettered corporate spending.
"It's an old, crony capitalism idea where big corporations and big government work together to advance the interests of a very narrow global set of corporations," Clements says. "The government is supposed to reflect all of us, not just the wealthy. Americans have far less speech now, far less of a voice in the process."
Clements argues that Citizens United has caused an imbalance of power between individuals and corporations. The "fair and free election process" that has been preserved for centuries is on the verge of being dismantled, he says. Clements warns that the landmark decision could create an oligarchy system similar to the one in Russia.
Government leaders at the local, state and national level are introducing legislation to overturn Citizens United. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed the "Saving American Democracy Amendment." More than 201,000 people have signed the electronic petition on Sanders' web site. Massachusetts Congressman James McGovern introduced the "People's Rights Amendment" in hopes of repealing the Supreme Court case. According to Clements, there are two ways to overturn a Supreme Court ruling: people can ratify a Constitutional amendment or the Supreme Court can strike down a previous decision.
For more on Super PACs and Citizens United read:
- Citizens United