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Since Citizens United, a Decade of Super PACs

Ten years after the creation of super PACs, wealthy interests use them to funnel billions into elections and make a mockery of contribution limits.

January 14, 2020

As a new decade begins, it’s hard to believe just how differ­ent our campaign finance system looks now compared with the begin­ning of the last decade. One key differ­ence: ten years ago, there was no such thing as a super PAC. That’s because the Supreme Court hadn’t decided Citizens United yet.

After that and related cases hacked away at campaign finance limits and the common­sense prin­ciples under­ly­ing them, a new land­scape began to take shape — one that favors the super­rich above all others.

For decades, limits on the amount of money people could give to politi­cians protec­ted against corrup­tion and required candid­ates to build broad support from many Amer­ic­ans. But in the post-Citizens United era, the wealth­i­est donors and special interests are free to spend without limit, and politi­cians rely on support from donors giving ever-larger amounts.

In 2010, Citizens United struck down caps on “inde­pend­ent” spend­ing by corpor­a­tions and unions, reas­on­ing that money that does­n’t go directly to candid­ates can’t pose any danger of corrupt­ing them. A few months later, a lower court — bound to follow the Supreme Court’s reas­on­ing — struck down limits on the size of contri­bu­tions to groups that support candid­ates without donat­ing to them directly. Since these new creations are super­charged versions of “polit­ical action commit­tees” (PACs), they were dubbed “super PACs.”

In the decade since their creation, super PACs have spent almost $3 billion on federal elec­tions. Super PAC spend­ing has trended sharply upward in both pres­id­en­tial and midterm elec­tion cycles.

The apex for super PACs so far has been 2016, when they poured over $1 billion into federal elec­tions, account­ing for 16 percent of all spend­ing. But that percent­age is decept­ively low, because super PAC money is not evenly spread across all elec­tions. The polit­ical oper­at­ives who control super PACs care­fully focus their atten­tion on compet­it­ive races, where the groups can even outspend the candid­ates them­selves. During the last two elec­tion cycles, super PAC spend­ing exceeded expendit­ures by all the candid­ates combined in 54 federal races, accord­ing to the Center for Respons­ive Polit­ics.

Of course, super PACs are not just another form of polit­ical group. Their entire reason for exist­ing is to allow unlim­ited contri­bu­tions, so they are really for those who can afford amounts larger than the $5,600 limit on dona­tions to candid­ates. Since the 2016 elec­tion, super PACs have raised more than two-thirds of their money in dona­tions of more than $1 million. Some are funded by a single multi-million­aire. The biggest donors have given of tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars to super PACs.

Although super PACs are legally required to oper­ate inde­pend­ently of candid­ates, they frequently choreo­graph their activ­it­ies with campaignsSingle-candid­ate super PACs raise tens of millions of dollars each and spend all of their money to get one candid­ate elec­ted. The biggest-spend­ing super PACs in congres­sional elec­tions are run by top staff of party lead­ers and care­fully align their spend­ing with the parties. All of this allows candid­ates and their wealth­i­est support­ers to circum­vent limits on contri­bu­tions to candid­ates and parties.

The Citizens United opin­ion naively said that inde­pend­ent spend­ing can’t corrupt. But not surpris­ingly, super PAC money has been involved in a long line of corrup­tion scan­dals and convic­tions, includ­ing the charges against Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, asso­ci­ates of Rudy Giuliani who are implic­ated in the Ukraine scan­dal that led to Pres­id­ent Trump’s impeach­ment.

Citizens United planted the seed that allowed super PACs to increase the power of corpor­a­tions and rich people to influ­ence who runs for office and who wins elec­tions in order to shape Amer­ican polit­ics to their own advant­age. Ten years after their creation, super PACs are huge and still grow­ing. Without reforms like public campaign finan­cing, the next decade is all but certain to yield a system even more skewed toward the wealthy few.

Data analysis by Kevin Morris.