Now that election 2012 is in full swing, the Lower 48 has been bombarded with TV advertising purchased by things called “super PACs.” Here in Alaska, with only three electoral votes and a late primary system, we have remained largely untouched by super PAC dollars. That is likely to change as the general election approaches.
So what is the fuss all about? We need to go backward to go forward. Since the early 20th century, campaign election law, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, has prohibited direct contributions to a candidate by corporations and labor unions. I know the media constantly talks about “corporate contributions,” but for some reason the media has never explained that these contributions are illegal. The only legal contributions to a candidate for national political office come from individual contributors, after taxes, with their own money, and then limited to $2,500 per candidate. This is what we call “hard money.”
Political Action Committees, or PACs — regular PACs, not super PACs — are consolidations of hard money and consist of after-tax contributions by individuals of their own, hard-earned money. PACs can be created by just about anybody as long as the contributions come from individuals out of their own money. Sarah Palin, the Republicans, the Democrats, Newt Gingrich all have PACs. The Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood have PACs. Right to Life has a PAC. Several of my past employers, including the Boeing Company, have PACs. Walmart has one of the largest.
But, once again, these PACs do not contain any corporate or labor union money. They are funded by individual contributions of individual money, and their funds can be used to directly contribute to the hard money campaign fund of a national candidate. On www.opensecrets.org there’s a list of PACs 100 miles long.
A super PAC is a different animal, created as a result of the Supreme Court decision in the Citizen’s United case in 2010. In that decision, the Supreme Court overturned 100 years of election law and held that it was a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech to prohibit a corporation or a labor union from purchasing political advertising. This is a highly controversial decision and I am going to abstain from giving an opinion on whether this decision is a good thing or a bad thing. It is what it is, and it cannot be changed without a formal amendment to the Constitution, a hard thing to come by.
Now, corporations and labor unions and rich people can make unlimited purchases of air time to attack or promote a political candidate by name. They are doing this in the form of super PACs. Technically, these entities still cannot make direct contributions to a candidate and technically the candidate involved cannot have any contact with any super PAC, but both of these issues have proved to be distinctions without a difference in the campaigns so far.
Liz Fleming is an attorney with her own practice in Kodiak.