Traditionally, campaign spending has been done by a committee set up and overseen by a candidate running for election. A candidate’s campaign committee is governed by state or federal laws depending on the office for which the candidate is running. These committees are required to publicly report donors and the size of contributions is limited. Currently, at the federal level, contributions to candidates’ committees are capped at $2,700 per person per election.
This all began to change 25 years ago when groups and sometimes individuals other than a candidate’s campaign committee started spending money to influence the outcomes of elections. This spending is referred to as “outside spending” or “soft” money because it occurs outside of the candidate’s official campaign committee. It is supposed to be independent of the candidate’s committee and its efforts are not supposed to be coordinated with those of the candidate’s campaign. However, this independence is very questionable in many, if not most, cases. The regulations defining the standard for independence and the enforcement of them have been weak at best. The Federal Election Commission (FEC), the primary regulator of campaign spending, is hamstrung by the intense partisanship in Washington.
The lack of accountability for outside spending has been a major contributor to the growth of negative campaigning. Outside spending is typically used to attack an opponent rather than to support a candidate. The attacks can be nasty and stretch the truth or worse. Because outside spending is technically independent of the candidate, he or she can plausibly claim that it is out of his or her control. Therefore, no one can be effectively held accountable for the content of ads or other material.
Outside spending had been growing relatively modestly until the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that ruled that wealthy individuals, corporations, and other organizations could engage in unlimited outside spending. The five Supreme Court justices who supported this ruling felt that such spending was part of free speech. They believed that the independence of the spending and the disclosure of its sources would prevent the corruption of elected officials who benefited from it. However, there is now significant evidence of collaboration between outside spenders and candidates, as well as evidence of corruption. (See my previous posts on illegal coordination and the corrupting effects of unlimited spending.)
Outside spending has already hit $1 billion in the 2016 federal elections – up from $225 million at this point in the pre-Citizens United 2010 elections. There’s been $621 million in outside money spent on the presidential race, $426 million spent on Senate races, and $187 million spent on House races. 
Outside spending now exceeds the spending by candidates’ committees in many of the high profile, tightly contested Congressional races.  Outside spending is spreading to state-level elections, which I’ll discuss in a future post.
Super political action committees (super PACs) are the primary vehicle for outside spending. Super PACs have spent $847 million to-date in the 2016 federal elections and they will spend hundreds of millions more by Election Day. There are no limits on the size of contributions they can receive, but they are required to disclose their contributors.
In addition to super PACs, two types of non-profit organizations are used for outside spending because they are not required to disclose their donors. (I’ll discuss donor secrecy in my next post.) One type is business associations like the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Medical Association, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. These groups are referred to as 501(c)(6) organizations because that is the section of the IRS rules that governs them. They may engage in political activities, as long as these activities are not their primary purpose. However, the IRS has not defined “political activity” nor “primary” so some of these organizations easily skirt this limitation. 
So far in the 2016 elections, 6 of these business associations have reported $26 million in political spending to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), including almost $25 million spent by the US Chamber of Commerce. The FEC reporting does not represent all the political spending by these groups because only certain kinds of activity are required to be reported, most notably activity, usually ads, that explicitly encourages the election or defeat of a specific candidate.
The second type of non-profit organization that is widely used for political purposes is commonly referred to as a social welfare organization. Examples include the National Rifle Association (NRA), Planned Parenthood, and the Sierra Club. These groups are referred to as 501(c)(4) organizations because that is the section of the IRS rules that governs them. Their primary purpose is supposed to be promoting the social welfare of our society. However, as with business associations, they may engage in political activities, as long as these activities are not their primary purpose. Again, because of the lack of clear regulations, some of these organizations easily skirt this limitation.
So far in the 2016 elections, 95 of these groups have reported $93 million in political spending to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), including $25 million spent by the NRA, the biggest spender among them by far. As with business associations, the FEC reporting does not represent all the political spending by these groups because only certain kinds of activity are required to be reported.
In addition to the significant potential for corruption, outside money is problematic because the unlimited spending it allows gives a megaphone to wealthy corporations and individuals that can drown out other voices that provide important information for voters. For our democracy to function as the founders envisioned it, citizens must vote and be well-informed. Unlimited election spending by a tiny slice of our society means that voters will receive skewed information and may be discouraged from voting because they feel their voices and votes are meaningless.
As a result, a democracy built on the principle of one person, one vote, is fundamentally undermined. All voices should be heard in a relatively balanced manner during election campaigns. Given the constraints of the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decisions, the value and impact of small campaign contributions must be enhanced by matching them with public funds. Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decisions must be overturned and limits established on contributions and spending in our elections.
 OpenSecrets.org, retrieved 10/22/16, “2016 outside spending, by race,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/outsidespending/summ.php?disp=R)
 OpenSecrets.org, retrieved 10/22/16, “Races in which outside spending exceeds candidate spending,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/outsidespending/outvscand.php?cycle=2016)
 OpenSecrets.org, retrieved 10/22/16, “Dark money basics,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/dark-money/basics)