Introduction

Imagine that you are running for a U.S. Senate seat. Campaigning is hard work – you’ll need to find various ways to connect with voters and persuade them that you’re the right person to represent them. This might involve TV and radio advertisements, social media outreach, phone banking, sending out mailers, and making live appearances at town halls and rallies. All of these activities require money. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, if you want to win a Senate campaign, you will likely have to spend around 10 million dollars.

Background

So, where does all this money come from? Under the law established in the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, an individual can spend no more than 2,800 dollars on a political campaign, no matter how wealthy they are. As a result of these limitations, other actors have become involved in the political fundraising process. One such actor is the political action committee.

Political Action Committees

A political action committee, also known as a PAC, is a group of people organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates. Generally, PACs represent ideological, business, or labor interests. An organization is recognized as a PAC when it receives or spends more than one thousand dollars to influence a federal election and registers with the Federal Election Commission.

A Super PAC, technically defined as an “independent expenditure-only political action committee,” can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against candidates. Unlike regular PACs, super PACs cannot donate money directly to candidates, but they can work on their behalf.

The History

The first political action committee was formed in 1944 by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which solicited voluntary donations from union members to raise money for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s re-election campaign. In the 1970s, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act in an effort to limit the influence of money in politics. This new campaign finance law restricted the amount that a corporation, organization, or individual could donate to campaigns. PACs quickly emerged as an effective loophole to the law, as they were able to solicit small contributions from many individuals and spend greater amounts. 

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations and unions deserve the right to exercise free speech, and should thus be able to directly finance political campaigns. Two years later, in SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, the Court ruled that PACs that did not make direct contributions to campaigns could actually accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions, and corporations. This gave rise to the Super PAC, an ostensibly independent organization working on behalf of specific candidates and issues, often funded by wealthy individuals and corporations.

How It Works

There are specific restrictions on how much money PACs can raise and spend. Firstly, they can receive up to five thousand dollars per donor every year. PACs can then spend up to five thousand dollars on a candidate or candidate committee every election. Annually, they may spend up to five thousand dollars in donations to another PAC or fifteen thousand dollars in donations to a political party. Of course, these limits don’t apply to Super PACs, which can raise and spend infinite amounts as long as they campaign independently from candidates.

Elected officials and political parties can set up what are called Leadership PACs to fund candidates’ campaigns and gain seats in Congress. A politician is not allowed to set up a Leadership PAC for themselves, but they may do so to support other candidates for office. These PACs are a form of “nonconnected” committees, which means they are not officially affiliated with the candidate or the officeholder and do not have an authorized sponsoring organization, although they may still solicit contributions from a variety of donors. 

So What?

There are well over four thousand political action committees operating in the United States. Because of their power to publicize candidates and ideas through fundraising and media campaigns, they can play a significant role in informing the public about political processes and issues. However, the rise of PACs has dramatically increased the amount of money in politics. Much of this influx of money comes from corporations with vested interests that may not represent or even directly conflict with the best interests of most voters. When considering who to vote for, it is always important to note where candidates are getting their money from and how this might influence the decisions they make once in office.

    Learn More

    1. “Political Action Committees (PACs).” Federal Election Commission, https://www.fec.gov/press/resources-journalists/political-action-committees-pacs/.
    2. Center for Responsive Politics. “Political Action Committees.” OpenSecrets.org, https://www.opensecrets.org/pacs/.
    3. Sabato, Larry J. PAC Power: Inside the World of Political Action Committees. W.W. Norton & Company, 1985.

    Think Further

    1. How do PAC raising and spending limits keep the electoral process fair? Is it fair that super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money?
    2. Why might the existence of PACs make it difficult for less well-known candidates to enter politics? 
    3. How might political fundraising look different if the federal government decided to forbid PACs from working on behalf of campaigns altogether?

     

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