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Using Super PACs to Get Rid of Super PACs

Want to get big money out of politics? Set up a super PAC.

That seemingly incongruous formula has been seized on by a growing number of watchdog groups, self-styled reformers and student activists who have set up more than a dozen super PACs aimed at putting a stop to unrestricted campaign spending.

With names such as America’s Super PAC for the Permanent Elimination of America’s Super PACs, Citizens Against Super PACs and No Dirty Money Elections, these protest political action committees are sober-minded, satirical or sometimes both.

Take CREEP, a super PAC set up by Georgetown University graduate student Robert Lucas. The name is a tongue-in-cheek reference the Nixon-era Committee for the Re-Election of the President, which organized the Watergate break-ins 40 years ago.

But Lucas, 23, has a high-minded goal of “raising voices, not dollars,” as he put it and is pushing for both public financing of campaigns and tax code reforms that would pull back the curtain on election-related spending. He has no plans to back candidates or party committees.

On the lighter side is Everyone’s Favorite Group of Socially Acceptable People Who Have Happy Funtime Ideas and Team, which registered with the Federal Election Commission on April 6 with no stated Web address or objectives.

By contrast, the newly registered Friends of Democracy PAC is the work of a pair of well-known progressive organizers: David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, and Ilyse Hogue, who has worked as a senior adviser with Media Matters for America. Friends of Democracy will function both as a super PAC and a conventional PAC and will advocate campaign finance changes.

Other super PACs protesting big money in politics include the Occupy Wall Street PAC; People Against the Corporate Manipulation of Election and News, which on its website touts its organizers as “everyday, non-billionaire, non-lobbyist people”; and You Forgot Us, which on its site asks: “Tired of the Big Money controlling the country? Wondering what you, the average American citizen, can do about it?”

It costs nothing to register a super PAC with the FEC, and the process involves filling out a simple form, as comedian Stephen Colbert demonstrated on his popular TV show. The father of all satirical super PACs, as the organizer behind Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Colbert spawned a wave of copycat PACs when he sold 1,000 versions of his $99 “Colbert Super PAC Super Fun Pack” within a week this spring.

One taker was Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Michael Invernale, a post-doctoral student doing diabetes research, who set up a super PAC dubbed Americans for a More American America to promote a campaign finance overhaul.

Invernale, 28, plunked down his $99 in part in hopes of winning the “Treasure Hunt” included in the “Fun Pack,” which promises that the first person to find
Colbert’s 101-year-old sterling silver turtle will win a free campus appearance by Colbert. Invernale is going to start with a satirical YouTube video and try to raise enough money for a local TV ad.

“It is a serious political message but through the venue of satire, in the spirit of Colbert,” Invernale said.

Purdue University graduate student Jonathan Rachowicz, who describes himself in FEC filings as “high treasurer” of America’s Super PAC for the Permanent Elimination of America’s Super PACs, bought Colbert’s Fun Pack with a similar goal.

He has set out to raise at least $1,000 from his classmates to underwrite some fliers, newsletters and possibly even a TV ad promoting the message that citizens should call for a constitutional amendment stating that corporations should not be considered people.

So far, Rachowicz says, he has collected  “a couple of bucks from a couple of friends.” But he reasoned that if he could collect even $1 from 1,000 classmates, he would have enough to work with.

For the FEC, purely satirical PACs present a potential administrative burden. The commission has a right to terminate PACs for a variety of reasons, including instances when a committee is inactive for a full year.

Earlier this year the commission terminated about five dozen PACs all run by the same treasurer, Josue Larose of Florida, who had registered a long list of apparently inactive super PACs with names ranging from United States School Teachers Super PAC to K Street Lobbying Firms Super PAC.

Depending on their activity, some of the satirical super PACs launched in this election may meet the same fate.

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