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Super PACs in DC? The evidence doesn't support the fears

DC has an opportunity to clean up its elections and restore public trust in District leaders with a ballot initiative, but some are arguing that a ban on corporate contributions to campaigns would just trigger super PACs. The evidence says otherwise. In states that have banned the same practice for decades, super PACs have not played any meaningful role.

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Ballot Initiative 70 would ban business organizations from contributing to candidates for public office in the District of Columbia, including the widespread practice where multiple LLCs with the same owners make separate contributions. DC voters will have the chance to weigh in this fall if campaigners gather enough signatures in the next few weeks.

After yesterday's Supreme Court ruling striking down a provision in Montana, several people asked whether Initiative 70 could fall as well. But the Montana rule applied to independent political expenditures, not direct contributions, and direct contributions are already illegal in 21 states and in federal campaigns. There's no reason to believe a DC law like Initiative 70 would face any constitutional issues.

Another line of attack holds that banning direct contributions will just push corporations to use super PACs to influence DC elections. Jack Evans, an official with strong fundraising from corporations, has leveled this criticism, and today professional political operative Chuck Thies espoused it as well.

Super PACs are all the rage these days on the federal electoral scene. Corporations use them to channel unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose political candidates. But super PACs have not played any substantial role in local or state elections where direct corporate contributions have been illegal for many years. Instead, with the exception of one outlier, they have played no role at all.

A larger and more conservative neighbor, Pennsylvania, has had a statewide ban on corporate contributions for decades, long before Citizens United. This ban covers every state elected official from the governor down to lowliest state representative, but you would be hard pressed to find a single super PAC contribution to expenditure on behalf of any state candidate.

In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, another state that has banned corporate contributions since long before Citizens United, you'll find the same thing. Nothing. There is no evidence of a single super PAC contributing to supporting a non-federal candidate.

The list goes on. North Carolina, Michigan, Colorado, and Iowa to name a few. All prohibit corporate contributions, but none have had any super PAC involvement with state candidates.

Wisconsin is the only outlier. There, anti-labor Republican Governor Scott Walker faced an ultimately unsuccessful recall effort in a battle that made—and at times dominated—national headlines as a fight between pro- and anti-worker forces. This highly charged and highly symbolic fight attracted the attention of super PACs.

But to call Wisconsin an outlier is an understatement given the charged and symbolic nature of the recall effort there. It is unlikely in the extreme that such a situation would replicate itself here in DC. The super PAC phenomenon created by Citizens United that has been limited to high-profile federal elections, not state or local contests. Even many, if not most federal candidates never come into contact with super PACs.

Politicians and pundits who cite this issue are doing little more than fear-mongering. Many benefit personally from the current status quo, because they have a fundraising advantage today thanks to corporate contributions or work for candidates who pay their salaries with such money.

These folks are not willing to seek help for their addiction to corporate cash or to help restore public trust in the District. The voters should pay them no heed.

John Durkalski lives in Columbia Heights and is an attorney at Butsavage & Associates, PC. He represents unions, including those working in retail, construction, government, and public transit, and progressive groups working for a more just and livable world.  


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Thies' argument is bizarre. Super PACs will interfere or they won't, regardless of whether or not people can also give money directly to candidates.

by Gavin on Jun 26, 2012 1:54 pm • linkreport

What about PACs that aren't so "super? Not sure what the difference is.

DC, and most states have PACs that are active in local and statewide races, DC has a few too. Care to comment on them?

by @SamuelMoore on Jun 26, 2012 1:59 pm • linkreport

Is Wiconsin a complete outlier... or is it just a bellwether? Compare the sustained national attention on Wisconsin to the recall of Gray Davis a decade ago. Every race now has the potential to garner widespread attention.

Also, your lines "you would be hard pressed to find a single super PAC contribution to any state candidate" and "There is no evidence of a single super PAC contributing to a non-federal candidate" are misleading. The fear isn't that super PACs will contribute to candidates - campaign finance laws can restrict that all they want. The fear is that they will run their own massive campaigns, officially separate from the candidates and thus freed from any checks regarding fundraising, propriety, etc. that a candidate's official campaign may face.

We've already seen this in the area at a lower level with astroturf groups like "Americans for Prosperity" waging an anti-Silver Line campaign. It's not inconceivable that the same thing could happen with elections of candidates.

Then again, DC politics is already full of shadow campaigns, which operate off-the-books and do a lot of the heavy lifting/dirty work, especially the more-or-less explicit racial and cultural appeals that candidates would rather not be associated with officially (all those photos of Sekou Biddle's wife aren't going to Xerox themselves!).

So by all means, ban direct corporate contributions. There's still going to be a thousand different legal, quasi-legal, and illegal-but-unprovable avenues for buying influence, from constituent funds to charities to business dealings, etc. etc.

The main purpose of raising campaign funds is to pay for advertisements, especially expensive TV ads. But DC elections have never been about ads.

by Dizzy on Jun 26, 2012 2:03 pm • linkreport

I think this assessment is pretty much on the spot.

I support Initiative 70 and have collected signatures for the effort. However, for better or worse, I don't see it transforming the political landscape in D.C. It's a step in the right direction, and it's a strong statement that people in the District don't believe corporations should have the right to more speech than individuals.

There's nothing stopping anyone from forming a Super PAC right now to benefit local candidates. And there's nothing stopping corporations from giving to them. If it was such a great avenue to influence local elections, they'd be doing it, regardless of if they also give directly to a candidate.

Super PACs work in the world of independent expenditures. The rules are that they cannot coordinate with candidates. While we may say that rule is a joke, it is a rule, and it can be enforced. As we've seen on the federal level, and in Wisconsin, IE is generally focused heavily on paid media. TV ads. Bombarding the airwaves.

On a local level, independent expenditures aren't as valuable dollar for dollar as direct contributions. Super PACs can help shape a narrative by running ad after ad on TV. But are the effective for a local race? For a race that's not part of a bigger story, that's not going to depend on the battles fought between the two major parties?

I find that doubtful. The inability to coordinate makes local action by a Super PAC difficult. Say you have an incumbent candidate running for re-election to the D.C. Council. This candidate has previously received a lot of corporate money. This money gets used for the campaign to pay canvassers to knock doors, make phone calls, organize events, so on and so forth.

If that money instead has to go to a Super PAC, you'd have to get that PAC staffed up by people who know how to operate a local campaign but aren't already working on one, you'd need to raise money, and you'd need to figure out what to do with the money. You can send mail, we see PACs do that right now in D.C. You could run advertisements. You could hire people to canvass, but you can't share the canvass results with the campaign. You could make phone calls, but again can't share the results.

Bottom line is, contributions to a PAC are not the same as contributions to a campaign. There's a lot of benefits to giving directly to a campaign, from both a campaign strategy point of view, and well also from a pay-to-play point of view.

by Dave Stroup on Jun 26, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

To answer Samuel's question, there's various types of political action committees and "voter education" committees, broken down by various types of non-profits, 501(c)4, 527, etc.

There are circumstances where PACs can and do coordinate with a campaign or make direct contributions to a campaign. There are laws about when they can do this, and there are contribution limits and tax consequences as well. For a Super PAC, they can accept unlimited contributions but cannot coordinate with a campaign.

by Dave Stroup on Jun 26, 2012 2:17 pm • linkreport

Anyone ever heard of BudPAC?

by @SamuelMoore on Jun 26, 2012 3:12 pm • linkreport

"you would be hard pressed to find a single super PAC contribution to any state candidate" and "There is no evidence of a single super PAC contributing to a non-federal candidate."

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] They are, by their very existence, *unable* to contribute to candidates. SuperPACs can spend money in support of or in opposition to a candidate, but they cannot contribute to a candidate. That's what makes them "Super".

[Deleted]. They were in fact established as a result of a completely different case, SpeechNow v. FEC. [Deleted].

by Jon M. on Jun 26, 2012 3:52 pm • linkreport

Jon, I read that to actually mean "independent expenditure in support of," but you are absolutely correct that the terminology used is wrong. I work in with compliance issues between c4/527 all of the time but I know most people may not know the nuances.

As far as BUDS goes, we all saw how they tipped the scales for Pat Mara, right?

SuperPACs aren't going to be that effective at actually turning out votes for anyone because of the obstacles inherent in IE. They can frame and issue and probably suppress turnout with negative ads but at the end of the day do nothing for on the ground battle for votes.

by Dave Stroup on Jun 26, 2012 3:58 pm • linkreport

Dave, what you call a nuance, I call the very heart of the issue. You work in compliance, so you know that whether something is in "in support of" a candidate is an extremely nebulous question. If a group runs an ad that says "Amnesty for Illegal Immigration is Wrong," is that an ad in support of Romney/in opposition to Obama? Or is it just an issue ad? If they run an ad that says "Republicans are the party of Wall Street, not Main Street," is that about state candidates or federal candidates? In other words, how can you possibly say what SuperPAC expenditures are "in support of" a candidate and which ones aren't, or which candidates (federal or state) they're in support/opposition of?

My point is that, in my opinion, the distinction the author is trying to draw holds no water at all, and based on this information we have no idea what SuperPACs will or won't do if this Initiative passes.

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Jon M. on Jun 26, 2012 4:20 pm • linkreport

Rereading the article here I agree with Jon. There are factual errors in the piece. I don't disagree with the ultimate conclusion but if the logic is actually that SuperPACs haven't shown up in FEC filings then that's simply wrong. They are not permitted by law to do so, so the lack thereof is not evidence.

by Dave Stroup on Jun 26, 2012 4:28 pm • linkreport

I see the piece has been corrected, thank you.

by Dave Stroup on Jun 26, 2012 4:31 pm • linkreport

There's no reason to believe a DC law like Initiative 70 would face any constitutional issues.

Give the Roberts Court time.

by cminus on Jun 26, 2012 4:44 pm • linkreport

You can express your objection to corporate money in politics by voting for Green Party candidates because they don't accept money from corporations or corporate interests.

by The Civic Center on Jun 27, 2012 12:18 am • linkreport

I think the basic idea that SuperPACs are coming to Washington (local) politics is a bit of a strawman.

There are levels and levels of campaign finance.

SuperPACS exist, and below that are completly unreported expenditures.

In fact, that level is where DC is today. Hire someone like this:

a a very nice retainer, and you might find that your calls to the council get answered. Or not.

by charlie on Jun 27, 2012 12:21 pm • linkreport

SuperPAC or not, what impact will this have on DC politics. The recent scandals really were caused by Corp donations. This feels like trying to put out a fire where there is no fire.

PACs will form as they do now and there may be more of them. Big money will still get in. The only thing I can see happening is this will strip any voice small businesses may have in the political process.

Recent political events almost asure this to be successful, yet I wont hold my breath. In some respects this is not about the public or trust, this is about a group gaining political leverage. I'm not sure is strong arming is a good alternative to bribery, but we'll find out soon enough.

by Robby on Jun 28, 2012 1:16 am • linkreport

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