One of the most deeply controversial classes of entity in American politics today – and that's saying something – large Political Action Committees or “Super PACs” are organizations that allocate vast sums of money to the support or undermining of particular political candidates. Super PACs first formed in the aftermath of a 2010 Supreme Court case, a decision that warrants a bit of background.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, abbreviated BCRA and colloquially known as the “McCain-Feingold” bill after its chief proponents, was itself a controversial legislative reform that imposed strict limits on the amounts of money corporations and unions could spend on publicly discussing a candidate for political office. Such “electioneering communications” as broadcast, cable, and satellite commercials for or against candidates were thus restricted. The rationale behind the BCRA was that, allowed to fully utilize their vast resources in the manipulation of public opinion, wealthy organizations could essentially own American politics by buying as many votes as necessary to always get their own way – but many people saw the law instead as an outrageous muzzling of free speech otherwise guaranteed by the Constitution.

The famous (or infamous, depending on one's personal inclinations) organization Citizens United, a conservative non-profit group, sought to use this law to restrict advertisements for filmmaker Michael Moore's documentary project “Farenheit 9/11”, which excoriated then-President George W Bush. This complaint was dismissed on the grounds that Moore's film constituted a “bona fide commercial activity” rather than contributions or expenditures on behalf of or against any particular candidate. Citizens United smarted from the defeat, but hoped to turn this ruling to its own advantage by itself becoming a bona fide film producer, and began releasing a library of politically-themed documentaries. One of these was “Hillary: The Movie”, a piece that was hotly critical of Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Despite Citizens United's attempts to cover itself with the Moore ruling, however, a complaint was filed against their production, arguing that “Hillary: The Movie” constituted campaign activity against Hillary Clinton and was thus subject to limitations under McCain-Feingold. A closely watched battle, the case made it's way as Citizens United v Federal Election Commission to the Supreme Court, which ultimately decided in favor of Citizens United – and pulled the teeth out of the BCRA's mouth, ruling that congress' imposed limitation on political spending had been an unconstitutional infringement of free speech.

Thus the Super PAC was born. Freed from spending ceilings on political advertisements, organizations began accepting large donations from wealthy entities. Today, there are over 1,300 such groups, reporting a total intake of nearly $700 million. Like them or not, Super PACs are here to stay – and they are rising to become forces of great impact on American politics.


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