Restrictions On SuperPACs Not Super Clear There's a superPAC supporting every major presidential candidate; Texas Gov. Rick Perry has three. Rules from the Federal Election Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission aim to keep the superPACs operating independently, but the rules' implementation is not clear-cut.
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Restrictions On SuperPACs Not Super Clear

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Restrictions On SuperPACs Not Super Clear

Restrictions On SuperPACs Not Super Clear

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LAURA SULLIVAN, host: And if you look at the presidential field this year, already, there's a superPAC for every major candidate. And, in fact, sometimes, one superPAC isn't enough.

As NPR's Peter Overby reports, three of these groups have surfaced to promote Texas Governor Rick Perry.

PETER OVERBY: Consultants have been practically tripping over each other to launch superPACs backing Rick Perry. In California, Bob Schuman says he was ready to go before Perry was.

BOB SCHUMAN: He wasn't going to do anything until after August 6th. Well, I knew that the Iowa straw poll was August 13th, and I thought, let's get a group together and let's go, see if we can impact that thing.

OVERBY: So Schuman's group, Americans for Rick Perry, ran a write-in campaign. Perry also got a boost on TV from a superPAC calling itself Jobs for Iowa.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What if we had a better option for president? We do. Rick Perry.

OVERBY: That group hasn't been heard from since. But yet, another superPAC has emerged, named Make Us Great Again. Its leader, Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff. Its top moneyman, Dallas businessman Brint Ryan, a bundler for Perry's gubernatorial campaigns. A spokesman for Make Us Great Again declined to speak on the record.

Back at Americans for Rick Perry, Bob Schuman says the two groups have worked out a rough coordination. Make Us Great Again will do big-dollar media campaigns, while his group works on voter mobilization.

SCHUMAN: What we're trying to do is step back and look at what we think the campaign would be doing and how we might best be able to help in the longer run.

OVERBY: And that is where things can get tricky. So lawyers get nervous when a superPAC is run by former aides to the candidate, which is the case with President Obama, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney, as well as with Make Us Great Again. Campaign finance lawyer Ken Gross says he wants commitments from presidential superPACs before his clients write any checks.

KEN GROSS: We get written representations from the superPAC that it will operate totally independent of the campaign.

OVERBY: He says superPACs are such a new concept with such vague ground rules that a donor can't be too careful.

GROSS: And it must operate completely independent of the campaign. And if there is any coordination between the superPAC and the campaign, the house of cards falls.

OVERBY: And there's another complication, too, beyond what the Federal Election Commission says. This year, another federal regulator imposed new rules. The Securities and Exchange Commission now bars finance firms and their executives from doing business where they contribute to support state and local politicians - politicians like Texas Governor Rick Perry, no matter what office he's running for.

This so-called pay-to-play rule doesn't affect any of Perry's rivals. Ken Gross says it's conceivable that the Securities and Exchange Commission wouldn't see any difference between giving to Perry's campaign and giving to the Perry superPACs.

GROSS: So we can't say just because the Federal Election Commission has viewed independence or an interpretation in such a way that they will necessarily at the Securities and Exchange Commission look at it the same way.

OVERBY: The pay-to-play rule is expected to put a crimp in Perry's campaign fundraising and likely will hurt the pro-Perry superPACs too. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.


SULLIVAN: So that covers Rick Perry. What about the rest of the presidential field? We put the question to Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that keeps an eye on money and influence in Washington.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Mitt Romney has Restore Our Future supporting his race. Ron Paul has Revolution PAC. Jon Huntsman, Our Destiny PAC. Michele Bachmann has two, Keep Conservatives United and Citizens for a Working America. And even President Obama now has Priorities USA Action supporting his candidacy.

SULLIVAN: These donors are so influential. The Center for Responsive Politics says that 80 percent of the money going to conservative outside groups this year came from just 35 sources.

KRUMHOLZ: So that totaled $14.1 million of the 17 million contributed to conservative superPACs so far this year.

SULLIVAN: And it's the same for liberal groups. They've only raised 7.5 million so far, but almost all of that came from just 23 donors. If you run one of these groups, you spend the money you collect. You can charter your own corporate jet. You can even set your own salary. You don't have to answer to any campaign because you're supposed to be independent. But...

KRUMHOLZ: So many of these organizations, these new superPACs, are actually directed by the former top lieutenants of the candidates, very familiar with the candidate's strategy. So it's concerning, because while they're technically unaffiliated, there's very clearly a close connection for many, many of these superPACs running to support a specific candidate.

SULLIVAN: Sheila Krumholz with the Center for Responsive Politics.

Now this idea that former campaign officials run superPACs, it's a legal gray area. But Brad Smith, another former FEC chairman, says that that's just the way it is in politics.

BRAD SMITH: That is just going to run political activity. There's a relatively small number of people who know how to do it and are interested in the partisan elements of it to do it.

SULLIVAN: Not only that, Smith says, he thinks superPACs and other outside groups have the potential to make elections more competitive, not less.

SMITH: Let's get rid of all these hoops, all this nonsense, just let people contribute what they want, spend what they want, have meaningful disclosure laws that don't go too far, and let it go.

SULLIVAN: At the end of the day, though, don't you worry that if people are allowed to donate to political candidates that those political candidates might be beholden to those people?

SMITH: Well, you know, I don't worry about it that much personally because I think, ultimately, that's what voters are for. Voters are there to vote out people who they don't think do a good job to listen to the arguments and to make the correct decisions.

The other thing that I think it may be the candidates are grateful for independent expenditures, but they have no control over them and they're not in a position to say, well, if you spend money for me, I'll do this. The minute they do that, it all becomes illegal. So I think that's really the difference.

SULLIVAN: So there are rules to keep superPACs separate from the candidates they support, right, Trevor Potter?

TREVOR POTTER: Oh, sure. Even though the courts have knocked down a number of these, there are still rules left that the FEC could enforce. The problem is they're not, to date, enforcing them. The FEC is deadlocked with...


POTTER: Well, it's six commissioners, three Republicans and three Democrats. And the three Republicans have taken a almost universally deregulatory view that says this law shouldn't be there, and they would say that's because they think that they infringe on the First Amendment.

SULLIVAN: So you're saying that the six people at the FEC who are in charge of deciding whether or not they should enforce the campaign finance laws can't decide whether or not they should enforce the campaign finance laws.

POTTER: Right. It's slightly differently. Their job is to enforce the laws. They shouldn't be there if they don't believe enforcing the laws. But, in fact, they, at the moment, can't even have an agreement on opening a rule-making to decide what the Supreme Court did in Citizens United and decide what that decision allows and doesn't allow.


SULLIVAN: Former FEC chairman Trevor Potter is a lawyer here in Washington with the firm Caplin & Drysdale.


SULLIVAN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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