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What are Super PACs?

The release last week of the Super PACs’ donor lists and expenses raises new questions about the influence of the rich and powerful on American politics.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Romney raised about $24 million in the last few months of 2011; closest contender Newt Gingrich's Super PAC, Winning Our Future, had about $2 million left, according to POLITICO. These organizations, which are not officially affiliated with the candidates, have reformed the political landscape in very real ways.

“This is the first presidential election where we’re watching these new creatures that can take any amount of money from just about any entity or individual and spend it any way they want as long as they’re independent of the candidate,” Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics told CNN in an interview last month.

See FEC rules on Super PACs

But what exactly are Super PACs and how have they become so influential? We have your guide:

How many Super PACs are there? About 300 Super PACs exist, according to political research groups such as the Sunlight Foundation and Center for Responsive Politics.

How much money are they working with? About $34 million, the Center for Responsive Politics says. “We think it’s important for people to be able to know who’s doing what to whom. Who’s supporting these campaigns or organizations in different ways,” Bob Biersack of the Center for Responsive Politics said in a CNN video.

How did they get so powerful? Judges eased prior restrictions on federal elections spending by outside groups in a landmark Citizens United decision two years ago (See this explainer on the Supreme Court blog). The ruling evened the playing field for U.S. corporations and individuals. For decades, donors could only spend $2,500 on a presidential candidate in a primary or general election, but were able to spend their own personal fortunes advocating for campaign organizations. Now, these campaign organizations (i.e Super PACs) can spend unlimited funds as well.

Are they governed by rules? Yes. Super PACs are beholden to campaign laws, namely that they must disclose their donors and can’t coordinate with a candidate or campaign. Comedian Stephen Colbert shed light on this in his recent exploratory push for political office, when he transferred his Super PAC to fellow Comedy Central host Jon Stewart. The joke was that despite their friendship and proximity they could not "coordinate" with each other.

What's next for Super PACS? They are under scrutiny following the release of the latest financial reports. On Tuesday, Senate Democrats announced they will hold hearings examining the impact of super PACs on the election process.
 

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