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New Political Groups Face Few Spending and Donation Limits

In the wake of the landmark Citizens United v. FEC campaign finance ruling, unions and corporations are now allowed to spend unlimited amounts of their own money to support candidates via advertising. But those are not the only changes to the campaign finance landscape likely to have an impact on this year’s elections.

A lower-profile March ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, SpeechNow.org v FEC, allows independent groups to pool and spend unlimited amounts of money on electioneering communications for or against candidates for office. The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group for money in politics, reported last week that seven of these groups have already formed.

One of those new independent expenditure groups is called “Florida Is Not For Sale,” and was recently created to support the candidacy of Kendrick Meek, a candidate for the Democratic Senate nomination in Florida.

These groups are the result of FEC advisory opinions issued last month that incorporate Citizens United and SpeechNow rulings and are creating what NationalJournal columnist Elisa Newlin Carney called “super PACs”:

The FEC advisory opinions appear to set the stage for a new generation of “super” political action committees that raise unlimited, previously-outlawed corporate and union money, while comprehensively reporting all receipts and expenditures. These groups must follow the same disclosure rules as fully-regulated PACs, but may not donate money to candidates.

Mary Brandenberg, a spokeswoman with the Federal Election Commission, said that before the SpeechNow decision, a PAC that wanted to make independent expenditures that spent more than $1,000 could only take $5,000 a year from an individual.

“The SpeechNow ruling allows individuals to make unlimited contributions to independent expenditure-only committees,” she said in an e-mail.

Ben Ginsberg, a Republican who served as head counsel to both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, said overregulation of political campaigns has given special interest groups a louder megaphone than parties or candidates at the federal level. Ginsberg said the new PACs emerging after the Citizens United and SpeechNow rulings are a result of that overregulation.

“You need an election where candidates and the party can speak with an equally large megaphone as the interest groups. The way it works now is that outside groups define the candidates,” Ginsberg said.

Paul Ryan, FEC program director with the Campaign Legal Center and an advocate for stricter regulation of money spent in federal elections, says the FEC needs to clarify the rules of the road for these new outside groups.

“Post SpeechNow PACs are a new breed. Unfortunately, the FEC hasn’t made clear how they will handle them,” Ryan said.

He added that if these PACs decide in the future that they want to start giving money directly to candidates, it is impossible to tell how the FEC would handle the situation.

“It is quite a dramatic change. We had limits on contributions to PACs since the 1970s, a ban on corporate political contributions since 1907 and a ban on corporate political expenditures PACs since 1947. In 8 months we’ve had elimination of all those,” Ryan said.