Happy birthday, super PAC!

Catchy name for 'independent expenditure-only committee' turns 4, still misunderstood

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If you Googled “super PAC” during early 2010, you would have most likely read about Super Pac-Man, the dot-gobbling protagonist of a vintage arcade game.

Today, the term that became shorthand for the comparatively clunky “independent expenditure-only committee” turns 4 years old, having become a main character both in real political battles and fictional political dramas like House of Cards. Even the Federal Election Commission has adopted the term and uses it widely.

Credit a Roll Call reporter for coining “super PAC” as it’s known today.

Then writing for National Journal, Eliza Newlin Carney first used the term in a column published on June 26, 2010, doing so to describe a new group called Workers’ Voices that intended to raise unlimited amounts of money to create political ads.

“I can’t say that I sat around for days or even hours to come up with this term,” Carney told the Center for Public Integrity, although she emphasized that she is particularly conscious of word choices in her writing. “I’m someone who often reaches for the thesaurus or the dictionary.”

”Super PAC” wasn’t an instant hit, however.

A search of news archive database Nexis indicates that the second time super PAC appeared in an article, Carney again wrote it, this time in August 2010.

Other journalists and politicos sporadically used the term during late 2010, then hundreds of times during 2011.

But it wasn’t until December 2011 when the usage of super PAC skyrocketed — at the height of a multi-episode arc in political comedy show “The Colbert Report.”

As part of the gag, host Stephen Colbert created his own super PAC, then transferred its control to Comedy Central colleague Jon Stewart upon announcing his bid for “President of the United States of South Carolina.” Colbert ultimately regained control of his super PAC — a legitimate, federally registered entity that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars — before converting it into a nonprofit organization in order to dodge disclosing its donors.  

While the stunt was all in good fun, Colbert helped publicize the controversial issue of coordination in super PACs. Although technically independent, they are often run by people who are personally close to the candidates they support.

The FEC, which regulates political committees, has also adopted the term super PAC. On its website, the section on “recent developments in campaign law” began employing the term around October 2011, according to the Wayback Machine, which archives old versions of websites. The expression “aka Super PACs” was added to a page subhead that previously referred to “Independent Expenditure Committees” alone.

The FEC did not respond to a request for comment on why it decided to adopt the term when it did.

In all, the term super PAC has been mentioned in news articles more than 60,100 times since Carney’s article. The greatest number of these mentions occurred during 2012 — the first presidential election year to feature super PACs.

“I can’t remember when the last time was that there was a story about the growth of independent expenditure-only committees,” said Michael Toner, a partner at law firm Wiley Rein LLP and a former FEC chairman.

In fact, the technical term independent expenditure-only committee has only been used 347 times since Carney first published the term super PAC.

The term super PACs became popular first and foremost because it is so accurate,” said Rick Hasen, a law professor who is an expert in election law. “It also connotes the idea of something with extraordinary strength — like Superman — and these PACs have played a major role in elections.”

The proper style for super PAC remains an issue, though.

While super PAC prevails — the Associated Press Stylebook and Merriam-Webster dictionary prescribe this spelling — variations such as Superpac, “super PAC” and super-PAC have all appeared in publications within the past week. A recent article in Talking Points Memo spelled it out in two different ways within the same article.

In 2010, the political fundraisers who were registering independent expenditure-only committees also tried out other terms among themselves.

“We used to call it an ‘independent expenditure’ and then started referring to it as IE for short,” said Adrian Eddleman, a Tennessee investment adviser who registered a super PAC called Conservatives for Truth on Aug. 2, 2010, the fourth oldest, according to FEC data.

“There were no other terms that I knew of,” he added, explaining that he did not adopt the term super PAC until a press article he read about his own Conservatives for Truth PAC referred to it as such.

Super PACs — before they were known as super PACs — were born in early 2010, the offspring of two separate federal court cases.

The first case, Citizens United v. FEC, reached the Supreme Court, which concluded that corporations, associations and trade unions should be allowed to fund political expenditures as long as they did not directly coordinate with candidates’ campaigns. The second case, SpeechNow v. FECconcluded that the government couldn't limit how much money people donated to groups that made independent political expenditures.

Together, they allowed for the existence of political action committees that could raise and spend unlimited amounts of money (hence the “super” in super PAC) for political expenditures as long as the expenditures were independent from any official political campaign.

The catchiness of the term contrasts with the relative obscurity of other post-Citizens United political vehicles, such as social welfare 501(c)(4) nonprofits and 501(c)(6) trade associations. While these nonprofits’ donations are sometimes referred to as “dark money” because of the anonymity their funders enjoy, no popular term has trumped their legalistic names.

“It’s in part because of the complexity of the tax code. It’s difficult to shorthand something that involves so much nuance from one group to the next,” Carney said, referring to the different types of nonprofits organized under section 501(c) of the tax code.

While the distinctions are clear and important — super PACs must disclose their donors, for one — politically active nonprofits have sometimes been confused with super PACs, perhaps because both kinds of groups are spending major cash in political races.

HBO’s Vice recently called Americans for Prosperity, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit linked to the billionaire Koch brothers, a super PAC.

Salon made the same mistake, calling Americans for Prosperity “the Koch brothers’ personal super PAC.”

Reuters got it wrong, too, calling Americans for Prosperity “one of the country's most prominent conservative super PACs.”

Similarly, the Washington Examiner referred to liberal power player Patriot Majority USA as a super PAC. It’s actually a secretive 501(c)(4) nonprofit.

Sometimes the mistake is not confusing super PACs with nonprofits but forgetting that the two are different kinds of organizations.

In a photo caption about Karl Rove, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote: “Karl Rove: ‘Bush’s brain’ helped organize the super-PAC Crossroads GPS, a ‘nonprofit’ that hides the identity of its donors.”

The distinction is tricky since American Crossroads is a super PAC and Crossroads GPS is an affiliated 501(c)(4) nonprofit group.

Perhaps by the super PAC’s fifth birthday — just as the 2016 presidential race heats up — the body politic will have straightened it all out.