What Are Super PACs?

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The 2010 election saw the rise of a new political action committee known as the “Super PAC,” officially classified by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as independent expenditure-only committees. Super PACs may raise unlimited funds from corporations, unions, associations or individuals, and then spend unlimited amounts to advocate for or against political candidates.

Approximately 449 groups have organized as Super PACs and reported total receipts of $202,441,752 and total independent expenditures of $94,203,226 in the 2012 cycle.

How SUPER PACs differ from standard political action committees

Traditional PACs include two distinct types of political committees registered with the FEC: separate segregated funds (SSFs) and nonconnected committees. In essence, SSFs are political committees established by corporations, labor unions, membership organizations or trade associations that can only solicit contributions from individuals associated with the sponsoring organization. 

Nonconnected committees are not sponsored by or connected to any of the listed organizations and are free to solicit contributions from the general public, subject to campaign contribution limits. Both types of PACs may contribute directly to political candidates or political parties, subject to certain contribution limits. 

In contrast, Super PACs may not contribute directly to candidate campaigns or parties but instead spend money independent of a political campaign to influence the result. In addition, they can raise funds from corporations, unions and other groups, and from individuals, without legal limits. According to FEC rules, Super PACs are not allowed to cooperate, consult, or act in concert with a candidate or their agents or a political party or its agents.

Both traditional PACs and Super PACs must report their donors to the FEC on a monthly or quarterly basis.

Legal basis for Super PACs

Super PACs developed from two judicial decisions. First, in January 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the FEC may not prohibit unions and corporations from making independent expenditures for political purposes (Citizens United v. FEC). Then the Federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the size and source of contributions to groups that only make independent expenditures could not be limited (Speechnow v. FEC).

The term “Super PAC,” was coined by reporter Eliza Newlin Carney of the National Journal on June 26, 2010, when she wrote that a group called Workers’ Voices was a kind of “‘super PAC” that could become increasingly popular in the post-Citizens United world.’ ”

The Center for Responsive Politics keeps a running total of the number and receipts of Super PACs: check their OpenSecrets website for latest details.

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