What is a Super PAC?

Why Super PACs are Such a Big Deal in Presidential Elections Now

Ready for Hillary Super PAC
Ready for Hillary was a Super PAC that supported Hillary Clinton's bid for president. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What is a super PAC?

A super PAC is a modern breed of political-action committee that is allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions, individuals and associations to influence the outcome of state and federal elections.

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The term "super PAC" is used to describe what is technically known in federal election code as an "independent expenditure-only committee." They are relatively easy to create under federal election laws.

What's the function of super PACs?

The role of super PACs is similar to that of traditional political-action committees. They advocate for the election or defeat of candidates for federal office by purchasing television, radio and print advertisements and other media. There are conservative super PACs and liberal super PACs.

What's the difference between a super PAC and a traditional political action committee?

The most important difference between a super PAC and traditional candidate PAC is in who can contribute, and in how much they can give.

Candidates and traditional candidate committees can accept $2,700 from individuals per election cycle. There are two election cycles a year: one for the primary, the other for the general election in November. That means they can take in a maximum of $5,400 a year - half in the primary, and half in the general election.

Candidates and traditional candidate committees are prohibited from accepting money from corporations, unions and associations.

Federal election code prohibits those entities from contributing directly to candidates or candidate committees.

Super PACs, though, have no limitations on who contributes to them or how much they can spend on influencing an election. They can raise as much money from corporations, unions and associations as they please and spend unlimited amounts on advocating for the election or defeat of the candidates of their choice.

Some of the money that flows into super PACs cannot be traced. That money is often referred to as "dark money." Individuals can mask their identities and the money they give by contribution first to outside groups including nonprofit 501[c] groups or social welfare organizations that go on to spend tens of millions of dollars on political ads.

Are there any restrictions on super PACs?

Yes. The most important restriction prohibits super PACs from working in conjunction with the candidates they're supporting. According to the Federal Election Commission, super PACs cannot spend money “in concert or cooperation with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, the candidate's campaign or a political party.”

When did super PACs come into existence, and why?

Super PACs came into existence in July 2010 following two key federal court decisions that found limitations on both corporate and individual contributions to be unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment right to free speech.

In SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, a federal court found restrictions on individual contributions to independent organizations that seek to influence elections to be unconstitutional. And in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that limits on corporate and union spending to influence elections were also unconstitutional.

“We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,” Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

Combined, the rulings allowed individuals, unions and other organizations to contribute freely to political action committees that are independent of political candidates.

Why are super PACs so controversial?

Critics who believe money corrupts the political process say the court rulings and creation of super PACs opened the floodgates to widespread corruption. In 2012, U.S. Sen. John McCain warned: "I guarantee there will be a scandal, there is too much money washing around politics, and it’s making the campaigns irrelevant."

McCain and other critics said the rulings allowed wealthy corporations and union to have an unfair advantage in electing candidates to federal office.

In writing his dissenting opinion for the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens opined of the majority: "At bottom, the Court's opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt."

Another criticism of super PACs arises from the allowance of some nonprofit groups to contribute to them without disclosing where their money came from, a loophole that allows so-called dark money to flow directly into elections.

What are some examples of super PACs?

Super PACs spend tens of millions of dollars in presidential races.

Some of the most powerful include:

  • Right to Rise, a super PAC that spent more than $81 million supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
  • Conservative Solutions PAC, which spent nearly $56 million supporting U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
  • Priorities USA Action, which supports Hillary's Clinton's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and backed President Barack Obama in 2012. Another prominent pro-Hillary super PAC is Ready for Hillary.
  • New Day for America, which spent more than $10 million supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
  • Restore Our Future, a conservative super PAC that supported Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.
  • Winning Our Future, a conservative super PAC that supported Republican presidential hopeful and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's run for the nomination in 2012.
  • Make Us Great Again, a conservative super PAC that supported Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry's unsuccessful run for the White House in 2012.