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The campaign-style advocacy, whether by super PACs or their lobbying affiliates, increasingly falls outside the lobbying disclosure regime. When super PACs run campaign ads targeting members of Congress, they report those expenditures to the Federal Election Commission under campaign finance rules. But those ads don’t count as lobbying and aren’t reported as such. At the same time, many “issue” ads and grass-roots campaigns run by advocacy groups affiliated with super PACs don’t get reported either because lobbying rules largely focus on meetings and contacts with lawmakers.
Conventional “PACs and lobbying disclosure are starting to appear like quaint anachronisms,” Gold said.
Some observers are more skeptical that super PACs will take hold as lobbying forces, particularly with trade associations and publicly traded corporations wary of alienating customers.
“In advocacy groups where you’ve got some wealthy people that feel strongly about an issue, you probably will see some growth,” said Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council. “It’s not likely to happen in the trade associations, and it’s not likely to happen in big companies.”
Still, with more than 1,000 super PACs registered with the FEC, representing groups from farmers to realtors to health care professionals continues to grow. The National Association of Realtors operates a super PAC that spent $2.8 million this election cycle, public records show. The American Dental Association’s new super PAC spent $323,000.
Other smaller super PACs include the Autism Super PAC and Disabled Citizens United. Environmental groups and labor unions have also embraced super PACs, with such groups as the League of Conservation Voters and the Service Employees International Union spending millions of dollars on often-successful campaigns this election cycle.
Like the Club for Growth, the SEIU is already lobbying hard on the fiscal cliff. The labor union is urging lawmakers to tax high-income earners and to avoid cuts to Medicare and other entitlements. The Club for Growth is equally adamant that tax rates should be lowered.
Caught in the middle are members of Congress, who view the developments with growing alarm. Lawmakers and candidates spooked by super PACs are spending more time than ever fundraising and are increasingly vulnerable to closed-door threats, campaign finance experts say.
“I think it’s a way for these groups to signal what policies they’re going to care about and help ensure that legislators stay in line — or risk the wrath of large spending against them in the next election,” Hasen said. “For House members, that next election’s always around the corner.”
Correction, Nov. 13
A previous version of this article misidentified Rick Hasen’s title. Hasen is a law professor at the University of California, Irvine.