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Are Super PACs Living Up to Supreme Court’s Intentions?

January 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Iowa, Super PACs pumped millions of dollars into last-minute negative television ads. What influence will they have in the rest of the GOP primary season and beyond? Judy Woodruff discusses the myriad of super PACs with the Sunlight Foundation's Bill Allison and CQ Roll Call's Eliza Newlin Carney.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: What influence will super political action committees have on the vote? In Iowa, the groups pumped millions into last-minute television spots. Pro-Romney super PACs spent $4.6 million to help their guy. Rick Perry boosters forked over almost $3.8 million. And after spending little of his own money, Rick Santorum finished second in Iowa, thanks in part to almost $650,000 from two groups there.

Some of all these outside ads were sharp attacks.

Winning Our Future, a super PAC backing Newt Gingrich, this week reprised a 2008 John McCain ad attacking Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper.

MITT ROMNEY: I will preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose and am devoted and dedicated to honoring my word in that regard.

I’m pro-life and favor that legislation.

NARRATOR: Ever notice how some people make a lot of mistakes?

One reporter said that the Romney PAC should get an Oscar for this year's election.Eliza Newlin Carney, CQ Roll Call

NEWT GINGRICH: It was probably a mistake.

I made a mistake.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Restore Our Future super PAC behind Romney went after Gingrich in that ad. And in a positive spot, the Red, White and Blue super PAC touted Santorum’s conservative credentials.

NARRATOR: Rick Santorum, dedicated defender of the unborn, resolute leader in the fight against radical Islam, courageous reformer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While the pro-Ron Paul Endorse Liberty super PAC made a Web ad starring voters.

MAN: Ron Paul has been consistent for more than 30 years. And he’s been absolutely right about the most important issues facing this country today.

For a closer look at the difference super PAC spending made in Iowa and what might be ahead, we’re joined by Bill Allison of The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates government transparency, and Eliza Newlin Carney, a staff writer for Roll Call.

And we thank you both for being here.

Eliza Newlin Carney, let me start with you.

Remind us where these super PACs came from. They grew out of a Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, in early last year — or, I should say, early 2010.

ELIZA NEWLIN CARNEY, Roll Call: Early 2010.

The Citizens United ruling rolled back limits that had existed for some time on corporate and unit expenditures. And that ruling said, if you are operating independently from candidates and parties, you can spend however much you want and you can raise however much you want from corporate sources and union sources that previously were barred from direct campaign money.

There was another ruling calls SpeechNow, which — a lower court ruling, which together with Citizens United paved the way for these PACs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Bill Allison, how different does that mean it is for these groups than what it is in the rules for the candidates themselves and what they can raise and spend?

BILL ALLISON, The Sunlight Foundation: Well, these groups can take contributions of up to $500,000, a million dollars.

It is unlimited how much an individual, a corporation, a labor union can give to these organizations. A candidate can only raise money in $2,500 chunks for his campaign. So you can very quickly build up a huge war chest in these groups to support a candidate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what are the rules around transparency? If someone writes a check to one of these groups, is their name going to be found out, and, if so, when?

BILL ALLISON: Well, this is one of the big problems is, is that we don’t have very fast disclosure for these organizations.

And the Restore Our Future PAC and several of the other super PACs have changed their filing status. They’re taking advantage of a quirk in the FEC rules which will allow them to not disclose any donors until the end of January, by which time not only will we have had Iowa; we will have this have New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.

So you have four early contests, and we won’t know the money behind these groups.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Eliza Newlin Carney, presumably, that’s not a coincidence, that they asked for that change in the reporting date.

ELIZA NEWLIN CARNEY: When you see how many of the different PACs have taken advantage of that opportunity, it does start to look like it might not be a coincidence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much did they end up spending altogether in Iowa? And how influential do we — is it believed that they were?

ELIZA NEWLIN CARNEY: I believe that they spent approximately $10 million altogether. And I think that the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, has been very widely credited with really helping Romney beat back a surge that had been enjoyed by Newt Gingrich.

One reporter said that the Romney PAC should get an Oscar for this year’s election. So, that may be overstated, but I think there is a perception that in this case that PAC in particular was very influential.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Bill Allison, who is running these organizations? And what connection do they have, if any — they’re not supposed to have a connection, is that correct?

BILL ALLISON: Well, actually, there was an FEC ruling. James Bopp, who is the lawyer behind the Citizens United case, started a super PAC. And he actually got the FEC to rule that candidates can raise money for super PACs. They can coordinate fund-raising.

But the super PACs themselves are being run by people who are very close to the campaigns. You’ve got a former treasurer and a general counsel for the Romney campaign in 2008 and a couple of other individuals who worked on the campaign running Restore Our Future PAC.

Newt Gingrich’s PAC is run by a pair of longtime aides of his, including that were involved in a 527 that Newt Gingrich had. So you have people who are very close to the candidates running these organizations. And, really, if you think about it, they don’t need to coordinate the message because these people know what the candidates need.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But there are rules, Eliza Newlin Carney, about what they are and are not supposed to communicate with one another, isn’t that right?

ELIZA NEWLIN CARNEY: Yes. Yes, there certainly are rules. And if you ask any of the candidates, they will say we have an absolute firewall. We never communicate with the super PAC.

But the funny thing about the coordination rule is, there are two things. One is that some argue the FEC’s coordination regulations are too lax. In fact, they’ve been challenged multiple times in court. So there is some dispute over whether the FEC has gone as far as it should in enforcing the rules.

But the other interesting thing is that, even if there were really strict rules that were carefully enforced, these folks don’t really need to go to a lot of trouble to signal what they are doing. All they need to do is put out a press release saying, I’m advertising in these regions of the state, and the candidate will know, well, they’re advertising there. I don’t need to advertise there. So…

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s — you know, if you read about — certainly, if you go back and look at what the Supreme Court ruled, Bill Allison, and you read what people say who defend what the super PACs are doing, they are — they are living proof that if you want to support a candidate and you want to put as much money as you can behind that candidate, this is a way to do that.

So are these living up to what the Supreme Court intention was?

BILL ALLISON: I really don’t think that they are.

I mean, one of the central points that the Supreme Court made in its — the majority — in its ruling was that it’s a reasonable restriction on campaign finance to avoid corruption. And they argued that these kinds of independent expenditures would not influence candidates because they really don’t benefit candidates directly.

And, clearly, what we’re seeing is, with super PACs closely tied to candidates and people able to dump, you know, a million dollars into these things, especially late in the campaign, these candidates are going to be somewhat beholden to the people who donated to the super PACs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in reading what the Supreme Court’s intention was, Eliza Newlin Carney, does that live up to what the court indicated?

ELIZA NEWLIN CARNEY: Well, it’s worth saying that there are certainly those who think these super PACs are a good thing, that they’ve enhanced speech and that there’s more competition now.

But it’s also true that the Supreme Court said, these entities will not be corrupting because it’s independent and it’s fully disclosed. And I think, arguably, neither of those premises is really being borne out by the reality of modern campaigning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, whatever is the case in that regard, how much influence do we think these groups are going to have in the primaries to come? I mean, what’s the sense as you — because you follow these groups very closely?

ELIZA NEWLIN CARNEY: Well, as I said, in Iowa, I think there’s a perception that they were quite important.

But I think one of the interesting things about these PACs is that they are quite unpredictable. This is the first election that we have with these entities here. And a number of them have sprung up and either changed their names or changed their allegiance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You reported, in fact, on one that sprang up for Santorum and then disappeared right after the end of the caucuses.

ELIZA NEWLIN CARNEY: Yes. And so these are unpredictable entities and their role is unpredictable.

And, in fact, both Gingrich and Romney have lashed out at these PACs. Now, that may be somewhat taking a stand for the — for political purposes, but I think there is a sort of innate discomfiture on the part of the candidates that these outside groups over which they have no real control do so have much power and money. So their role will be unpredictable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, Bill Allison, what do you expect to see from these super PACs in New Hampshire, South Carolina, the contests that are coming up right away?

BILL ALLISON: They can spend whatever they want, and they probably will.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, they’re already running ads, as we see.

BILL ALLISON: Oh, of course, yes.

And they will be — you know, it’s just amazing how much they can — how quickly they can raise money and get on the air and influence a race. And we have already seen Winning Our Strategies going after Mitt Romney. And we’ve seen Restore Our Future hitting other candidates.

So we’re just going to see more and more spending. You won’t be able to turn on the TV without seeing somebody paying for a political ad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we don’t know whether that is even — more even than what the candidates are spending, because that amount is not disclosed…

BILL ALLISON: Not yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … just yet.

Bill Allison, Eliza Newlin Carney, we thank you both.

ELIZA NEWLIN CARNEY: Thank you.