The PAC Attack
In the most recent bout for a party nomination for president, a large talking point amongst Democrats was the vilification of Political Action Committees, or PACs for short. By definition, a PAC is an independent group that accepts virtually any sum of money from individuals and companies, and the PAC in turn can take those funds and direct it to supporting, or opposing, any candidate, ballot measure, or legislation via paid advertisements and organizations.
PACs are often funded by corporations. The first attempt by Congress to stop corporations from funding federal elections was the Tillman Act in 1907. In those days, with rising industrialization, companies wanted to have a larger impact on elections (MTSU). This act began the regulation of political campaigns and banned companies from donating cash from their treasuries to a federal election.
The first PAC formed in 1944. The Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, formed a group that aimed to help re-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. This group, named the CIO PAC, which represented a labor union, could only accept donations from union members (PBS). The laws at the time, namely from the Smith Connally Act of 1943, mostly known for its wartimes powers, also barred unions from directly donating any funds to a federal candidate. That law was enacted to stop labor unions from spending any union dues on candidates sympathetic to workers issues. By creating the CIO PAC, they could circumvent the law completely.
To create a PAC today is simple, all that needs to be done is open a bank account, appoint a treasurer, and follow some other basic rules, according to the Federal Election Committee. In fact, it is so easy today that Steven Colbert, the former comedian host of The Colbert Report, created one as an educational joke in 2012 to prove this point. It raised over $1 Million.
Until 2010, PACs were regulated under campaign finance laws, and an individual could only donate up to $5,000 per year. Also, no corporations nor unions could make any donations. Then, in 2010, a decision in the Supreme Court Case “Citizens United v FEC”, by a 5-4 decision, ruled that political spending is protected by the first amendment as free speech. The court case stemmed from a nonprofit conservative organization called Citizens United, who sought an injunction against the Federal Election Commission. This injunction sought to stop the use of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) rules from stopping the group from publishing a movie about candidate Hillary Clinton for President (History). The BCRA in essence sought to limit corporations and their involvement with elections. This ruling by the Supreme Court meant any corporation or union could spend unlimited cash on a candidate they support as long as they were independent of the campaign itself. Individuals could also donate as much as they wanted to PACs. This decision created a new type of PAC, a Super PAC.
In only the first six months of the 2019-2020 election cycle, the FEC reported that presidential candidates raised $337.1 million and spent $159.9 million. PACs, by contrast, raised $958.2 million and spent $818.7 million. That’s over 500% more spending by PACs than candidates themselves. Regular PACs can donate directly to a candidate (up to $5,000), a political party (up to $15,000), or another PAC (up to $5,000). They can receive up to $5,000 from an individual. In the 2000 presidential election cycle, one prominent PAC, Comcast Corp, spent $272,970. In the 2016 presidential election cycle, the same PAC spent $4,491,541 (Comcast). A Super PAC, however, can use their funds to create their own content to publish their message to the radio, the internet, television, print, and more, and can accept unlimited donations from any company or person.
So the question is, has this type of spending muddied elections? By allowing corporations to make donations to PACs, and ending a cap on how much an individual can donate, PAC spending has skyrocketed.
In 2010, the first year Super PACs could operate, 83 total groups spent $62,641,448. In 2016, Super PACs exploded, there were 2,393 groups that raised approximately $1.8 Billion, and spent approximately $1.1 Billion during the presidential election. The Super PAC Priorities USA Action, which supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, spent $133,407,972 (Open Secrets). In 2018, the conservative Congressional Leadership Fund Super PAC spent $138,305,427. Today, there are 2,395 groups that are Super PACs. In 2020 so far, 1,972 Super PACs have raised $1,132,342,983 and have spent almost $350 Million. As seen in the following figure, Super PACs have injected an incredible sum of money into politics (Center for Responsive Politics).
Regardless of someone’s personal opinion on Super PACs, all of the spending today begs the question of whether all of this money is worth it. What, exactly, do the American people gain by PACs spending hundreds of millions of dollars to influence them? Do they gain more qualified, dedicated candidates? There is nothing wrong with an individual donating to a candidate directly (as long as it is under $2,700 per election cycle). However, one should ponder if it is okay that independent groups can spend over 500% more than candidate raised funds themselves, including hundreds of millions of dollars raised by companies and the wealthy and consider that election to not be muddied.
This logic is why some recent Democratic candidates for president have endorsed the idea of federally funded elections, so that no outside money can influence candidates or the people. Of course, the current system is standing law, so the next best thing for candidates is to simply refuse funds from PACs, and publicly distance themselves from Super PACs from moving massive amounts of money to their benefit, or dis-benefit. The hope being that over time, these PACs lose their influence. But until then, voters can only try to be aware of what is going on with all of the money in politics. If there was a system where candidates could only rely on their supporters and party to fund their race, politics would be much clearer.
- Tyler, The National Watch