The Morphing of Super PAC Lobbying: From Election to Issue

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December 3, 2012; Source: USA TODAY

With the elections over, 501(c)(4)s and super PACs now move into a new realm of advocacy: Capitol Hill lobbying around issues of the fiscal cliff. The morphing of super PACs from electoral campaigns into issue lobbying was described by Howard Marlowe, the outgoing president of the American League of Lobbyists, as a “natural evolution.” However, if you take 501(c)(4)s at face value that they were created to engage in issue advocacy, the move of super PACs (which can receive unlimited contributions, per Citizens United) into lobbying on behalf of corporate interests may be another step into the further politicization of an already highly special interest-oriented dynamic in American governance.

This USA TODAY article highlights the activity of the National Association of Realtors (NAR), which has been an assiduous and effective lobbying interest in favor of policies such as the mortgage interest deduction. Now, NAR can deploy super PAC funds for additional influence-buying. NPQ looked up the specifics and found that, just for 2012 (through October 31), the National Association of Realtors had spent $25,940,000 (including a tiny amount from the California Association of Realtors) on federal lobbying. Compare that to $22,355,463 for lobbying in all of 2011, the highest NAR total before 2012, and $19,477,000 in 2009. Note that the Realtors accounted for almost half of the total spent on real estate industry lobbying in 2012.

Now, with the election over, add in the resources that might be available from the National Association of Realtors’ own super PAC, which spent $5,099,912 in the 2012 election cycle, including $3,144,485 in support of Republicans (including Rep. Tom Reed, who defeated the CForward-endorsed Nate Shinagawa in Upstate New York) and $1,955,427 to help Democrats. NAR’s standard PAC (with limited donation levels, as distinct from its super PAC) was the nation’s largest PAC spender in the 2012 election cycle, making more than $3,779,471 in contributions.

Super PACs with lobbying arms have the potential to make some industries hugely influential. For example, half of the Realtors’ super PAC contributions went to two members of Congress, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.), who serve on the House Financial Services Committee. Guess where some of the Realtors’ major policy priorities will be debated?

In terms of the combination of lobbying and PAC resources available, we can’t think of a nonprofit issue that compares. Most people think of the AARP, advocating for the elderly, as one of the most powerful nonprofits in the nation. With no super PAC or PAC, the AARP did have lobbying expenditures in 2012 and they were not small by any means, but the $7,410,000 from the AARP is still less than one-third of NAR’s campaign spending. There’s no comparison. Is the “natural evolution” of super PACs moving into policy lobbying a good thing or a further step down the path of unleashing big money into a process of buying political influence?—Rick Cohen