Journalism in the Public Interest

FEC Data Show Big Jump in Spending by Super PACs and Outside Groups

More money is coming into U.S. politics, and much of it is flowing in through new and barely regulated groups. 

(Photo by Robert George Young/Getty Images)

As we reported earlier this week, the Federal Election Commission, which regulates the flow of political cash, has been plagued by persistent gridlock on some key areas of campaign finance.

Why’s that important? Because, as we explain, more money is coming in and much of it is flowing in through new and barely regulated groups.

Take a look at these graphs — found in a report [PDF] recently posted by the commission — that shine a spotlight on independent spending, or spending that’s technically not coordinated with candidates and their campaigns:

What’s striking here is that independent spending by “PACs, Groups and Individuals” more than quadrupled. Similar spending by parties stayed roughly the same. The data, compiled by the commission, are just another indication that the significance of traditional party committees is shrinking in the rapidly changing campaign-finance landscape, eclipsed by new groups that can take in unlimited amounts to fund ads. (The other category in the chart, “electioneering communications,” represents what are known as “issue ads” that don’t explicitly endorse or oppose candidates. Spending on those ads stayed at about $80 million, compared to its 2008 level.)

Another FEC graph breaks down spending a little further. Setting aside the party committees that cut back on their independent spending in 2010, it shows that while traditional PACs have increased their independent spending somewhat, a more substantial increase came from other groups and the rise of Super PACs, which started forming in 2010 after several court rulings opened the door to unlimited corporate and union donations.

Super PACs, as we’ve noted, can take unlimited donations so long as they’re not coordinating their spending with campaigns. Though these groups have grown in number and influence since the last election cycle, the FEC has yet to issue any rules that specifically address them and has only issued advisory opinions — which don't have the force of law or regulation — giving guidance on what they’re allowed to do.

Individual donors and other groups — nonprofit 501(c)s ranging from unions to so-called social welfare groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS — can also make independent, noncoordinated expenditures. They took full advantage of this last cycle, spending more than $70 million.

Campaign-finance watchers estimate that independent spending in the 2012 cycle will blow away what was seen in 2010, especially since it’s also a presidential election year. If the FEC’s data are any indication, the Super PACs and other nonprofit groups will be the ones to watch.

At the moment, while fundraising is in full swing, the spending is just starting. Here’s a look at some of the ads that both Democrat- and Republican-leaning Super PACs and 501(c) groups have already put out with the money that has come in.

A few examples:

Republican-allied Crossroads GPS, a 501(c)(4), just rolled out an ad attacking President Obama this week:


Priorities USA, a pro-Obama Super PAC, launched an attack ad against GOP candidate Mitt Romney last week:


Make Us Great Again, a pro-Rick Perry Super PAC, released its first ads last week:

Barry Schmittou

Nov. 9, 2011, 3:10 p.m.

It seems impossible to keep up with the flood of money.

Can people from other nations make contributions, if so is their documentation required or are they secret contributors?

If a PAC “leans” Republican or Democrat as Ms. Wang wrote, isn’t that “coordinating their spending with campaigns” which makes “unlimited donations” illegal?

Our politicians seemed to be bought before Citizens United. Since Citizens United have unlimited contributions become untraceable?

Barry Schmittou

Nov. 9, 2011, 4:07 p.m.

Are there different types of contribution sources and programs where the contributors are known by the political party leaders, but remain unknown and/or hidden from America’s citizens ?

If so that seems like a Shadow Government that cannot be monitored.

(One news source refers to Karl Rove’s anonymous-money giant)

Additionally, the “barely regulated” Super PAC’s are just one more example of the U.S. Governments flagrant failure to competently regulate the elite who provide huge contributions and lobbyists gifts.

If you favor the insidious take-over of government by big corporations, this report will make you very happy.

Any break down about how much of the Super PAC money is coming from foreign interests?

@Elizabeth - “Foreign interests”?  You mean like the modern “conservatives”?

Barry Schmittou

Nov. 9, 2011, 8:26 p.m.

I found the following quotes in the ProPublica article linked to the words “we’ve noted’ that are seen above in blue.

I would still love to know if ProPublica has more info and an answer to Elizabeth’s great question :

ProPublica quotes :

“FEC regulations ban foreign nationals from contributing, but they say nothing about a foreign corporation donating money through a U.S.-operated subsidiary.”

“Loopholes can also allow donors to stay hidden, such as when money comes from a nonprofit that doesn’t have to disclose how it’s funded.”

“Ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court said that the government cannot prevent corporations and unions from spending unlimited money to support or criticize specific candidates.”

“The FEC, deadlocked for months on issues of disclosure and foreign money, has not yet written new rules interpreting the court decisions. That’s left the field open for political strategists and lawyers.”

“Like ordinary PACs, Super-PACs must disclose their donors. But because of time lags in reporting, months can go by before the identities of million-dollar donors are revealed; some weren’t disclosed until after the 2010 midterm elections. Last month, the campaign-finance watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics found five Super-PACs that attributed a vast majority—and in some cases all—of their funding to affiliated nonprofits that are not required to reveal donors.”

“Why donate anonymously, when influence is the goal? Experts say that secret giving can shield corporations from blowback when supporting controversial causes, and it can make a corporate-funded effort appear to be grassroots. Plus, no rule prevents donors from telling politicians directly about their support if it suits their needs.”

(end of ProPublica quotes)

It seems anyone including U.S. and global corporations, China, organized criminals, even drug cartels or terrorists groups can secretly contribute huge amounts of money by acting as a charitable organization or “a foreign corporation donating money through a U.S.-operated subsidiary”

If you think drug cartels would never have the power or desire to control politicians please consider these quotes from England’s Guardian Observer News:

“At the height of the 2008 banking crisis, Antonio Maria Costa, then head of the United Nations office on drugs and crime, said he had evidence to suggest the proceeds from drugs and crime were “the only liquid investment capital” available to banks on the brink of collapse. “Inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drugs trade,” he said. “There were signs that some banks were rescued that way.”

Also please remember Wachovia Bank laundered $378 billion for Mexican drug cartels that are responsible for 35,000 murders. No one was prosecuted !!

I would think that anyone who didn’t consider the possibility that the multinational American corporations which are making a boatload of money shipping American jobs, technology, and industry to the communists in China lobby on behalf of those communists would be just a tad bit naive.

Particularly when those communists do something outrageous - which ain’t all that rare - that would normally require at least a token response from a democratic government that wasn’t under the influence of those lobbyists.

And when you consider the pertinent triplet of facts:  “Corporations” are “people” who now have the “right” to influence government and politics, half or more of the profit generation/financial accounting for many of those artificial “people” is done in a communist country that wants the capability of influencing the American government, and money is fungible…

Well, I don’t suppose it would be very easy at all to find out who is bribing who with whose money.  ‘Cept, of course, it isn’t bribery anymore - it is donating.

Gee Whiz.  Who would have seen this coming?

james davisson

Nov. 10, 2011, 7:26 a.m.

It’s nice that we have one growth industry in the U.S. Too bad it’s called bribery.

The Supreme Court has recognized the personhood of corporations since 1886, as this Scribd paper details:

The Court defended the right of free speech for corporations since corporations own most of the media outlets. While true, we then need to reconsider who can own media outlets. For the sake of our democracy, only independent non-profits should be allowed media ownership, if this is what it takes to stop the effects of the Citizens United decision. Yet this will be an extremely difficult piece of legislation to push towards the window and see the light of day.

Hang on, hang on.  Information seems scanty, but it strikes me that the only way you get unlimited donations, anonymous donations, and unlimited expenditure is to create several cooperating organizations that are each a step along the path from donor to expenditure.  Correct?

If so, then they’re laundering money.  Let Citizens United stand and get the DAs across the country to bust them under RICO laws.  In a court of law, prosecution for breaking the law is going to go a lot further than questionable ethics within the letter of the law.

Let’s see who pokes their head out to defend the process under those circumstances…

Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company (1886) wasn’t actually a “decision” was an off-hand remark by a justice that was transformed into a miscarriage of justice and an active attack upon democracy by every “conservative” ever since.

An interesting quote from

Begin quote:

As revealed by our friend bex—and detailed by Thom Hartmann in Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights (2002)—the whole thing began as a courtroom comment by a judge, which was elevated to the status of legal precedent by an overreaching court reporter.

Here’s what happened. Santa Clara County in California was trying to levy a property tax against the Southern Pacific Railroad. The railroad gave numerous reasons why it shouldn’t have to pay, one of which rested on the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause: the railroad was being held to a different standard than human taxpayers.

When the case reached the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Morrison Waite supposedly prefaced the proceedings by saying, “The Court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which forbids a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.” In its published opinion, however, the court ducked the personhood issue, deciding the case on other grounds.

Then the court reporter, J.C. Bancroft Davis, stepped in. Although the title makes him sound like a mere clerk, the court reporter is an important official who digests dense rulings and summarizes key findings in published “headnotes.” (Davis had already had a long career in public service, and at one point was president of the board of directors for the Newburgh & New York Railroad Company.) In a letter, Davis asked Waite whether he could include the latter’s courtroom comment—which would ordinarily never see print—in the headnotes. Waite gave an ambivalent response that Davis took as a yes. Eureka, instant landmark ruling.

End quote.

I.e., democracy in America was railroaded by the equivalent of a modern railroad CEO.  lolll…but at least earlier Supreme Courts hadn’t been as thoroughly corrupt as ours now is…just the clerks.

As I mention in the paper, the personhood of corporations was claimed through an “obiter dictum,” a legal “oh, by the way,” in the Santa Clara case. The obiter dictum is used frequently. The Supreme Court has treated it ever since, however, as if it had been a decision.

Makes you wonder how many days away is an obiter dictum of the sort “Christianity is the natural religion of the United States of America.” - to be “recorded” as “Christianity is the official religion of the government of the United States of America.”

Or “The ownership of land in America is common among American voters.” - to be “recorded” as “The ownership of land is a prerequisite for voting in America.”.

etc., etc., etc. 

After all, the precedent was already set by SCC v. SPRC:  The Supreme Court doesn’t have to decide anything; a single justice has only to mutter a whim, an opinion, or a political goal - and it is the curse of the land.

In summary, there is a certain advantage to the historical reliance upon precedent when you are in a position to set precedents. 

An intrepid “conservative” could precedent democracy to death while simultaneously breathing a permanent and hereditary aristocracy into life with a handful of sentences instead of relying upon pusillanimous little half-steps like granting “rights” to pieces of paper.

lollll…the royal court, indeed.

All the more reason we need to revisit our constitution on the question of how the Supreme Court is seated. We should consider elections, four-year terms, two-term limits. Candidates for the SC should be banned from running on party platforms, using independent campaigns only.

This is not a very original idea: “It has been thought that the people are not competent electors of judges learned in the law. But I do not know that this is true… the judges of Connecticut have been chosen by the people every six months, for nearly two centuries….” – Thomas Jefferson, in a July 12, 1816 letter to Samuel Kercheval.

For more on these reforms:

The ruling in Citizens United proved one major thing…the old saying that..“He with the peso…has the say so”  is 100% true…government is clearly “FOR SALE”

Contact Dylan Rattigann for the pretition Get The Money Out. The Supreme Court opened a Pandoras box and now the whole system is up for the highest bidder.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Buying Your Vote

Buying Your Vote: Dark Money and Big Data

ProPublica is following the money and exploring campaign issues you won't read about elsewhere.

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories