The People’s Majority super PAC advertises itself with lofty goals.
“We are the only super PAC dedicated to the research, development and enhancement of motivating conservatives to the polls,” it proclaims on its website. “No dinners, no pictures with VIPs, no shirts or yard signs here. People’s Majority uses every penny of your contribution to identify and motivate low-turnout voters on Election Day.”
Well, not every penny. The super PAC, which registered with the Federal Election Commission with the express purpose of advocating for and against political candidates, spent nearly ten grand on meals alone last year, including eye-popping bills at restaurants including Sorellina in Boston, Manny’s Steakhouse in Minneapolis, Henri in Chicago and Michael’s on the Hill in Vermont.
And even though it is an “independent expenditure-only committee” — the formal name for a super PAC — it didn’t spend a cent on independent expenditures, the activities that help elect or defeat candidates, such as political advertisements and targeted get-out-the-vote efforts.
People’s Majority isn’t alone.
Fewer than one in seven of the roughly 300 super PACs and “hybrid” PACs that spent money in 2013 put funds toward calling for the election or defeat of a federal candidate, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of recent FEC filings.
Given that 2013 was not a regular election year, it’s not surprising that super PACs weren’t out buying ads. But critics say the groups could have used 2013 to stockpile cash ahead of midterm elections this November. Instead, they collectively burned through more than half of the $143 million they raised last year. Nearly two-thirds of super PACs and hybrid PACs spent more than they saved.
Many of these committees operated as piggy banks for golf expenses and steakhouse soirees or vehicles for filling the bank accounts of consulting firms and super PAC executives. Others have grown so big and sophisticated that they operate more like political party committees than independent outfits.
Among the Center for Public Integrity’s findings about super PAC spending in 2013:
Less than a sixth of the $109 million spent by super PACs and hybrid PACs — which make independent expenditures but also have separate accounts for making candidate contributions — went to independent efforts to support or oppose federal candidates.
Almost half of the groups’ itemized reported expenses* — $36 million — went toward overhead costs such as salaries, payments to consultants and marketing. This doesn’t include spending on fundraising, events, research, data, list acquisitions, polling, voter outreach and mailings.
Political entrepreneurs cashed in, despite 2013 being a non-election year. At least five super PACs and hybrid PACs made payments to firms employing their leaders. What’s more, the top 10 groups paid by super PACs and hybrid PACs for services together collected more than $22 million.
Leaders of several of the super PACs say their committees’ spending is justified: Fundraising or advocacy work is often done by people whose salaries and consulting fees are considered overhead expenses, and travel is required to help accomplish their goals.
But some of the super PACs’ donors expressed surprise their money wasn’t necessarily paying for efforts to elect the kinds of candidates they support.
“I wouldn’t want to give money to anybody that’s not doing what they claim to,” Texas resident Abel Balboa said after hearing one of the hybrid PACs he donated to, the Tea Party Leadership Fund, paid nearly $200,000 to firms run by the group’s leaders. “I give on impulse out of my own heart, thinking I’m doing good.”
That’s no surprise to Rick Hasen, a law and political science professor at University of California, Irvine, who publishes the Election Law Blog.
“Super PACs are not just about influencing elections — they are a source of income for political consultants,” Hasen said.
Super PACs today play major roles in U.S. politics, but they’re a relatively new phenomenon.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010 allowed unions and corporations to spend as much as they want to advocate for or against those running for office, so long as they don’t coordinate their spending with candidates or their committees.
Later that year, a lower court ruled in SpeechNow.org v. FEC that independent political organizations could accept unlimited donations from individuals as well as corporations and unions, effectively giving birth to super PACs. Ever since, super PACs have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on elections.
People’s Majority in D.C. spent over a fifth of its more than $121,000 in overall expenses on food, drink and travel costs — more than 10 times what was normal in 2013 for the 301 super PACs and hybrid PACs examined.
Though it didn’t report compensation costs, two-thirds of its expenses went to consultants. The average super PAC spent about a quarter of its cash on both consultants and compensation during 2013.
Paul Hatch, a founder of the super PAC, said most of the consulting fees were for the group’s executive director who spent his time researching better ways to motivate voters to get to the polls and using technology to do that. Hatch said the executive director also had meetings with donors and “spent a lot of time with other people in the industry … vetting ways of using handheld devices, doing online advertising.” It raised more than $65,000, according to FEC records, and was left with less than $8,000 at the end of 2013.
American Bridge 21st Century, which supports Democrats and was one of the highest-spending super PACs last year, once slammed Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in an opposition research report, citing criticism about his “lavish” spending.