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Super PACs are here to stay

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Super PACs, and other outside political groups, are here to stay — and so are the ads they run. But now these groups will be talking about post-election stuff.

Jonathan Collegio is the spokesman for the American Crossroads super PAC and its sister nonprofit Crossroads GPS. Both groups support conservative causes. Together, they have spent nearly $180 million this election season, according to the Sunlight Foundation. Collegio ticks off a list of issues Crossroads cares about: “Energy independence, tackling the debt, making sure we have a flatter, fairer tax system, health care.”

I met Collegio at Crossroads’ Washington headquarters. There’s nothing temporary about it. He has a nice office: Two computer screens to peer at; Tums and Tylenol within easy reach. Collegio says Crossroads will watch what the lame-duck Congress does after the election, especially on the looming fiscal cliff of automatic tax increases and spending cuts. He says Crossroads could start running anti-tax ads later this month.

“It could be that soon,” Collegio says. “Amazingly.”

I ask, “Are you tired?”

He says, “I have a six-week-old at home so that makes me even more tired than you might imagine.”

The American Crossroads super PAC isn’t a baby anymore; it’s two years old now. In true toddler fashion, it’s exploring the limits of its power. Collegio says American Crossroads will lobby. If Mitt Romney wins the election, it’ll help promote his agenda. It’ll work with Republicans on Capitol Hill. For their part, super PACs supporting Democrats will push their party’s agenda.

But the super PACs’ superpowers are troubling for some, like campaign finance lawyer Trevor Potter. He was general counsel for John McCain in the 2008 election.

“Once this genie’s out of the bottle,” he says, “it’s hard to put it back.”

Potter worries that outside political groups will use their power to set up meetings for wealthy donors at the White House or on Capitol Hill. He says, “Essentially the selling of access and the opportunity to argue a position, for money.”

Collegio says American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS won’t do that, but campaign finance reformers are concerned. Bill Allison is editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation. He says there is one check on the super PACs superpowers: You.

“With so much money moving through the system, you’re going to find those kinds  of political scandals that get the American public really engaged again, and angry, and that’s when you get reform,” says Collegio.

Or at least proposals for reform in Congress, which the super PACs could lobby against.

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