'Citizens' Case Opened Floodgates For PAC Money

Robert Siegel speaks with David Levinthal, director of the Center for Responsive Politics' original journalism and blogging, about new political action committees formed since the Supreme Court ruled for Citizens United. The ruling allows political groups to keep their funding sources secret. Levinthal has been tracking political spending in this first campaign since the ruling.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

As we've heard, a race for one congressional seat can draw money from Americans for Prosperity on the right; from big unions, the CWA; and Ask Me on the left.

Dave Levinthal is with the Center for Responsive Politics, and he's been tracking political spending this year, the first year since the Supreme Court ruled that corporate campaign contributions are free speech. Dave Levinthal, welcome.

Mr. DAVE LEVINTHAL (Communications Director, Center for Responsive Politics): Pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: First, we just heard about Americans for Prosperity and two big unions. Are they doing things differently this year because of the Citizens United ruling?

Mr. LEVINTHAL: Because of the Citizens United ruling coupled with another federal court case called Speech Now v. Federal Election Commission, you basically have new avenues of money that are available to all different sorts of entities, and you better believe that they are taking advantage of these new political tools that have been given to them to do their best in various elections all across the country.

SIEGEL: Now, as I understand it, Americans for Prosperity with so much money from David Koch, does not qualify as a super PAC, a new class of political outfit. What makes a super PAC super, and what are some examples of that?

Mr. LEVINTHAL: Here in lies the ranked confusion that we have. There are all of these different types of entities that can exist...

SIEGEL: 501(c)(4)s, 501(c)(6)s.

Mr. LEVINTHAL: Precisely. And they all can politic in one way or another, but their primary purpose is not necessarily supposed to be politics. You have to have a super PAC, which is a brand new type of entity that is allowed to raise unlimited sums of money and spend unlimited sums of money to directly advocate for or against a political candidate and then ultimately have to report those donations.

SIEGEL: Ultimately, meaning before the election?

Mr. LEVINTHAL: If you're a super PAC, you will have to disclose some of your information prior to the election, but there's always a lag in this information. It is not coming in real time. You cannot simply go to a website and look up who exactly is behind truly in dollars and cents that advertisement that's going out sponsored by one of these groups.

SIEGEL: Among the super PACs, I gather one that's especially super, is American Crossroads. What is American Crossroads?

Mr. LEVINTHAL: Well, American Crossroads is a conservative organization that was supported by Karl Rove, for one. And already, we've accounted they've spent more than $4 million on independent expenditures in races across the country. And we find that this organization, as well as several dozen other of these super PACs, have been spending into the millions and millions of dollars to advocate for or against candidates.

SIEGEL: Are there comparable groupings on the Democratic side or on the liberal side?

Mr. LEVINTHAL: There are groups on the liberal side, and one would be the Patriot Majority. Another is a group called Commonsense Ten. It's organizations that represent all ends of the political spectrum.

SIEGEL: Dave, we heard in Peter Overby's report that Americans for Prosperity, a 501(c)(4), which cannot legally attack candidates, claims that when it says tell Schauer, the Democratic congressman, that he works for us, not for Nancy Pelosi. That's not an attack, they say, that's educating the voters. Is that generally accepted that the line of what education is as opposed to attack is fairly dotted and perhaps faint?

Mr. LEVINTHAL: The line is about as gray as it can possibly get. And, in fact, this is an issue that late this week has come up in a major way as Senator Max Baucus from Montana, he's the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, wrote a letter to the IRS, saying 501(c)(4), (5), (6) organizations, these groups that should not have a primary purpose of engaging and politicking are, in fact, doing so in a way that concerns him. And he, basically, asked the question to the IRS, is this tax code being used to eliminate transparency in the funding of our elections?

The IRS has not responded at this point, but it's a very curious question that is on the minds of many, many folks who are concerned that organizations out there are indeed engaging in an activity that could be crossing that line, blurry as it is.

SIEGEL: No one would suggest that American political campaigns circuit 2008 were free of big money. How much is the world post-Citizens United different? I mean, is it really seeming to open the gates to far more corporate money?

Mr. LEVINTHAL: When you look at what happened in the 2006 midterm elections, we estimated that there were about $2.8 billion that fueled all the federal elections. Now, in 2010, we're estimating a very conservative level that it will be about $3.7 billion. We would not be surprised at all if that exceeds $4 billion. That's surely beating inflation, surely beating the stock market. You're seeing no recession in politics this year.

SIEGEL: Dave Levinthal, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. LEVINTHAL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Dave Levinthal is with the Center for Responsive Politics.

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