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Senate Democrats Criticize Super PACs

Senate Democrats today voiced outrage over recent public disclosures showing tens of millions in corporate donations to largely GOP-friendly super PACs and announced plans for a task force, hearings and legislation to rein in unrestricted campaign money.

“We’re now living in a world created by the Citizens United decision, and it’s a disaster for our democracy,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a Capitol Hill news conference with Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Schumer was referring to the landmark 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited treasury money on campaigns.

Campaign finance reports filed in time for a Tuesday Federal Election Commission deadline have offered a vivid picture of the big money flowing into super PACs during the GOP primary. Super PACs backing GOP presidential candidates, which have been the biggest spenders, have collectively spent more than $40 million so far, in many cases outspending the candidates themselves.

Restore Our Future, a super PAC that spent about $10 million helping former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney win the Florida primary, received close to a dozen donations totaling $1 million or more and several dozen of $100,000 apiece from wealthy individuals and corporations, many in the financial services industry.

The “silver lining” to the big spending by super PACs, Schumer said, is that “it offers us a fresh opportunity for reform, and we are going to seize it.” Whitehouse and Franken will help lead a seven-member task force focused on reforms. Schumer said his Rules and Administration Committee will hold hearings on super PACs and their donors later this month.

Senate Democrats will also push once again for disclosure legislation to improve transparency for super PACs, which Schumer assailed for failing to publicly report their donors until after several early GOP primaries and caucuses had come and gone. Congressional Democrats pushed for disclosure legislation in the previous Congress but fell one vote short of passage in the Senate.

Schumer said Democrats will also push a coordination bill to ensure that super PACs keep candidates and campaigns at arm’s length, as required by law. Election laws already bar coordination, but Schumer and other reform advocates say the rules mean little given that many super PACs are run and funded by candidates’ aides, associates and even relatives.

“This level of disclosure isn’t simply inadequate, it’s laughable,” Schumer said. The problem isn’t just super PACs, he added, but the nonprofit affiliates that many such organizations run. As an example, he pointed to the Crossroads operation launched in part by GOP operative Karl Rove, which according to news reports has raised $18 million for the super PAC known as American Crossroads and $33 million for an affiliated nonprofit known as Crossroads GPS.

“We’re unable to follow the money trail at all,” Schumer said of the millions raised and spent by Crossroads GPS and other nonprofits affiliated with super PACs. “We’re completely in the dark.”

Schumer acknowledged that Democrat-friendly groups are also operating super PACs, some of them with affiliated nonprofits. The super PAC backing President Barack Obama, Priorities USA Action, received more than $215,000 from its affiliated nonprofit, Priorities USA, recent disclosures show.

The transfer “amounts to a money-laundering scheme to hide the true sources of the money,” Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said in a statement. The watchdog group is working with Schumer and his allies to craft super PAC legislation.

“No matter who does it, the system needs to be fundamentally changed,” Schumer said. He acknowledged that no Republican Senators have stepped forward to join Democrats in pushing for reform, nor does he expect them to except in response to “public pressure.” He added, “Our Democratic majority in the Senate will spend a lot of time on this issue.”