THE BLOG
09/10/2014 11:59 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Individual-Candidate Super PACs Threaten to Wipe Out Candidate Contribution Limits

In 1974, Congress enacted limits on contributions to candidates to prevent corruption.

Today, these contribution limits are in danger of being wiped out by individual-candidate Super PACs.

The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010 unleashed the world of Super PACs into our elections. Along with them, came individual-candidate Super PACs.

Super PACs raise unlimited contributions from wealthy individuals, corporations and other special interests. The PACs are required to spend the funds independently from candidate campaigns.

If they do not, the expenditures are treated by campaign finance laws as in-kind contributions to the candidate being supported and are subject to the $5,000 per year limit on PAC contributions to candidates.

Individual-candidate Super PACS differ from other Super PACs in two important ways: they support only one candidate and they are generally run by close political or personal associates or family members of the candidate.

While individual-candidate Super PACs claim to be independent from the candidate they support, in reality they are closely tied to the candidate and function as an operating arm of the candidate's campaign.

The real purpose of an individual-candidate Super PAC is to circumvent candidate contribution limits. Wealthy donors, corporations and other contributors use these Super PACs as vehicles to make unlimited contributions to directly support the candidate backed by the Super PAC.

Individual-candidate Super PACs first surfaced in the 2012 presidential campaign. Almost every presidential candidate, including President Obama and Republican nominee Romney, had a Super PAC focused only on their candidacy.

For example, two White House officials left the Obama Administration and shortly thereafter created Priorities USA Action to support the Obama reelection campaign. The Super PAC spent more than $65 million in unlimited contributions in the 2012 presidential campaign to support President Obama.

Three former top officials of the Romney 2008 presidential campaign created Restore Our Future to support the 2012 Romney presidential campaign. This individual-candidate Super PAC spent $142 million in unlimited contributions to support Romney - the most spent by any super PAC in the 2012 elections.

Casino executive Sheldon Adelson and his wife, who gave $30 million to Restore Our Future, and broadcast executive Fred Eychaner, who gave $4.5 million to Priorities USA Action, knew they were making these multi-million dollar contributions to directly support Romney and Obama respectively. The presidential candidates, of course, knew this as well.

These same donors could only give $5,000 directly to the candidate's campaign committee. Thus, by giving multi-million dollar contributions to the Super PAC supporting only their favored candidate, the donors and the presidential candidates were able to bypass and eviscerate the candidate contribution limit.

The number of individual-candidate Super PACs has exploded in the 2014 congressional elections, with 71 such Super PACs currently in existence, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). These include individual-candidate Super PACs financed by the candidates' relatives, or run by the candidate's former political aides and close associates, or financed by single donors.

A New York Times editorial (February 16, 2014) concluded, "This election year will be the moment when individual candidate super PACs -- a form of legalized bribery -- become a truly toxic force in American politics."

A Washington Post editorial (September 3, 2014) noted that the "cozy relations between a candidate and super PAC patrons are now commonplace, both in House and Senate races. When put behind a single candidate, these super PACs can make a difference in a tight race and all but destroy the idea of limits on campaign donations."

Individual-candidate Super PACs have raised more than $35 million in unlimited contributions for congressional races in this election cycle, to date, according to CRP. Many millions more will be raised and spent in the upcoming two months.

The Roberts majority on the Supreme Court has made it increasingly difficult to prevent the corruption of federal officeholders and government decisions. Individual-candidate Super PACs, however, are a vehicle for corruption that can be shut down, even under the Court's decisions.

The Empowering Citizens Act (H.R.270), the comprehensive reform bill introduced in the House by Representatives David Price and Chris Van Hollen, would accomplish this goal.

The Price-Van Hollen Bill would end individual-candidate Super PACs by defining coordination between a candidate and outside spending group to include the indicia that closely tie an individual-candidate Super PAC to the candidate being supported.

These indicia include the roles played by the candidate's former political operatives or close associates in managing these PACs, the involvement of family members in financing or managing the PACs and the role played by the candidate and his agents in creating, managing or raising money for the PACs.

The Post editorial (September 3, 2014) stated, "Two years ago, we suggested these super PACs could be put out of their misery by legislation sponsored by Reps. David E. Price (D-N.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and it is still a good idea. There are more of these super beasts than ever."

The New York Times editorial (February 16, 2014) stated that the Price-Van Hollen bill's Super PAC provisions represent "the best chance for ridding politics of special-interest cash and preventing another era of scandal."

Past Supreme Court decisions have held that candidates must be "totally independent," "wholly independent and "truly independent" from outside spending groups, and that outside spending must be done "without any candidate's approval (or wink or nod)."

In other words, the Supreme Court has said in very strong and clear terms that there can be no coordination between a candidate and an outside group spending money to support the candidate.

Since individual-candidate Super PACs are typically managed, operated or financed by close political or personal associates or family members of the candidate, they are inherently coordinated with the candidate they support. The Empowering Citizens Act incorporates these relationships into a new definition of coordination in order to prevent the blatant circumvention of the campaign finance laws by individual-candidate Super PACS.

Congress can solve the insidious problem of individual-candidate Super PACs being used to wipe out candidate contribution limits. The Empowering Citizens Act will do this.

Without the Empowering Citizens Act, we will return soon to a system of unlimited candidate contributions -- a system that the Supreme Court found "inherently corrupt" in 1976 when it upheld the constitutionality of contribution limits. This system remains "inherently corrupt" today.