In a sign that super PACs are the new normal, two highly unlikely groups established the vehicles known for unlimited corporate contributions last week: an Occupy Wall Street super PAC and another created to run ads opposing — super PACs.
“Fight fire with fire!” pleads Citizens Against Super PACs, which formed Tuesday. “We use funds to educate the public about super PACs, and we run ads to help candidates and elected officials who support a constitutional amendment to either limit super PACs or get rid of them all together,” it says.
On Wednesday, as Occupy Wall Street protesters in Washington and other cities continued their months-long demonstrations against what they call corporate greed and the purchase of political influence, paperwork arrived at the Federal Election Commission establishing We Are the 99% Movement.
“Citizens United is the worst decision for this country since Dred Scott. Saying corporations are people is as bad as saying people are property,” the latter group’s founder, Duke Thomas, said of the 2010 Supreme Court case that allowed corporations and unions to donate to such groups and allowed them to accept contributions of any size.
“I think it is ludicrous to say someone gave me $1 million, but if they call, I’m not going to talk to them, and if they have a point of view, I’m not going to listen,” he added.
“The 1% and their corporations contribute and spend these grotesque amounts” seeking laws benefiting them, the Occupy-themed super PAC’s mission statement laments.
Yet both groups chose to form under a category stemming from that decision.
Carrot to stick
Half of the PACs created so far this year have been in the “super” category, up from a quarter in 2011.
The proliferation of independent-expenditure-only committees, as they are formally known, illustrates a political shift from the carrot to the stick. The traditional role of a political action committee is to reward positions in like-minded lawmakers by contributing $5,000 to their re-election accounts.
But there’s no negative counterpoint to that. A PAC can’t deduct $5,000 from the accounts of politicians it dislikes.
The usual role of a super PAC, on the other hand, is to run ads attacking lawmakers who don’t share the group’s position.
Technically, regular PACs can run ads, though it is rarely done, and such groups can accept individual contributions of only $5,000 or less. Super PACs, meanwhile, may not contribute to candidates — a restriction that did not seem to bother leaders of many new groups.
“My lawyer said, ‘Why not?’ Everyone’s creating them as super PACs,” Mr. Thomas said.
The whiff of hypocrisy is not lost on populist groups hoping for big-dollar donations to alter the political landscape.
“There’s a bit of irony to it. … When I told my wife what I was doing, she laughed at me,” said Brooks Harrington, the anti-super PAC super PAC’s treasurer. “Then she said, ‘Oh, you’re serious.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I need to do something.’ “
It’s a quandary faced by liberal politicians who opposed the Citizens United decision: Adopt the new tool and use it to blast your messaging, or take a principled stand and risk being irrelevant.
“You almost have to join the game to fight the fight,” said Mr. Harrington, a state employee in Little Rock, Ark.
Such was the choice faced by President Obama, who has said he despises the influence-peddling that super PACs enable, then accepted the resignation of top White House aide Bill Burton so he could create Priorities USA Action, a super PAC working to ensure Mr. Obama’s re-election.
Without it to do battle with Republican super PACs, Mr. Obama seemed to fear, he might lose his bid for a second term — and the bully pulpit that lends his thoughts on money in politics, along with other matters, such heft.
Ideological supporters without political careers on the line have been less willing to compromise. Priorities USA’s fundraising has been abysmal, with many wealthy Democrats apparently too turned off at the idea of an Obama super PAC to donate.
Mr. Thomas and Mr. Harrington acknowledge their groups might not receive any large contributions — underscoring the noteworthiness of the new tendency to reserve the option. But a frustration with the status quo has led both to take action — which, they say, these days often takes money.
“I talked to a local Occupy guy and said, ‘You want to change things? Are you registered to vote?’ And he said ‘no,’ ” said Mr. Thomas, a 75-year old Columbus, Ohio, retiree making his first foray into organized politics.
As Mr. Harrington put it: “It’s not enough to just sit in a tent somewhere. We’ve got to run some ads.”