High-dollar super PACs and advocacy groups failed to score big wins in the recent elections, but they may have better luck with their next act: lobbying Capitol Hill. From anti-tax activists to environmental organizers, special interest players are pivoting to the policy arena and bringing their unrestricted super PACs with them. It’s a trend that worries campaign reform advocates, who warn that the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling may do more to distort policymaking than elections.
“It’s part of the permanent campaign,” said Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Sometimes it’s about issues, and sometimes it’s about candidates. But you’re always pushing the message.”
Big-spending GOP super PACs such as American Crossroads and its affiliated nonprofit, Crossroads GPS, spent more than $175 million but failed to win the White House or the Senate. Despite their record, the group’s organizers say they’ve just begun to fight. Like many campaign-oriented advocacy groups, the Crossroads operation couples a super PAC with a tax-exempt lobbying arm.
Crossroads officials are gearing up for a lobbying and advertising campaign focused on budget, energy and health care issues, starting with the looming fiscal cliff that will trigger automatic tax increases and spending cuts if Congress doesn’t enact a deficit-reduction plan. GOP operative Karl Rove, who helped launch the group, recently told the Washington Post that Crossroads is considering branching out to back candidates in GOP primaries, a new tactic.
The move reflects the growing heft of tea-party-aligned groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks for America, which waded into primaries — sometimes to GOP leaders’ consternation — and had a higher general election win ratio than Rove’s operation. The Club for Growth Action super PAC had a 41.37 percent return on its investment, according to the Sunlight Foundation, compared with 1.29 percent for American Crossroads and 14.4 percent for Crossroads GPS.
“The purpose of the Club for Growth is to pass pro-growth policy in Congress, and we do that in two ways,” Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said. “One is through issue advocacy: letting members of Congress know where we stand and supporting economic freedom in Congress. And the other way we do that is by electing more pro-growth votes through our super PAC. And I think that members of Congress know that we are not afraid to replace a bad vote with a good one, if we can.”
It’s only a matter of time before mainstream lobby groups follow suit, using super PACs as the Club for Growth does to warn lawmakers who don’t fall in line that campaign attack ads are in store, some on K Street predict. Election-style advocacy campaigns that use TV ads, social networking, grass roots and “grass-tops” lobbying have long been on the rise. But super PACs accelerate that trend.
“People are going to be looking for new tools to break through the noise in D.C.,” said Rich Gold, a partner at the law firm of Holland & Knight. “I could see super PACs being set up by industry sectors, or even by coalitions interested in a particular issue.”
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.
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