Political action committee
In the United States, a political action committee (PAC) is a 527 organization that pools campaign contributions from members and donates those funds to campaigns for or against candidates, ballot initiatives, or legislation. The legal term PAC has been created in pursuit of campaign finance reform in the United States. This term is quite specific to all activities of campaign finance in the United States. Democracies of other countries use different terms for the units of campaign spending or spending on political competition (see political finance). At the U.S. federal level, an organization becomes a PAC when it receives or spends more than $1,000 for the purpose of influencing a federal election, and registers with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), according to the Federal Election Campaign Act as amended by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (also known as the McCain-Feingold Act). At the state level, an organization becomes a PAC according to the state's election laws.
Contributions from corporate or labor union treasuries are illegal, though they may sponsor a PAC and provide financial support for its administration and fundraising. Union-affiliated PACs may only solicit contributions from members. Independent PACs may solicit contributions from the general public and must pay their own costs from those funds.
Federal multi-candidate PACs may contribute to candidates as follows:
- $5,000 to a candidate or candidate committee for each election (primary and general elections count as separate elections);
- $15,000 to a political party per year; and
- $5,000 to another PAC per year.
- PACs may make unlimited expenditures independently of a candidate or political party
In its 2010 case Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned sections of the Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (also known as the McCain-Feingold Act) that had prohibited corporate and union political independent expenditures in political campaigns. Citizens United declared it was unconstitutional to prohibit that corporations and unions spend from their general treasuries to finance independent expenditures related to campaigns, but did not alter the prohibition on direct corporate or union contributions to federal campaigns. Organizations seeking to contribute directly to federal candidate campaigns must still rely on traditional PACs for that purpose.
The political action committee emerged from the labor movement of 1943. The first PAC was the CIO-PAC, formed in July 1943 under CIO president Philip Murray and headed by Sidney Hillman. It was established after the U.S. Congress prohibited unions from giving direct contributions to political candidates. This restriction was initially imposed in 1907 on corporations through the Tillman Act. The Smith-Connally Act extended its coverage to labor unions in 1943. A series of campaign reform laws enacted during the 1970s facilitated the growth of PACs after these laws allowed corporations, trade associations, and labor unions to form PACs.
Federal law formally allows for two types of PACs: connected and non-connected. Judicial decisions added a third classification, independent expenditure-only committees, which are colloquially known as "Super PACs".
Most of the 4,600 active, registered PACs, named "connected PACs", sometimes also called "corporate PACs", are established by businesses, non-profits, labor unions, trade groups, or health organizations. These PACs receive and raise money from a "restricted class", generally consisting of managers and shareholders in the case of a corporation or members in the case of a non-profit organization, labor union or other interest group. As of January 2009, there were 1,598 registered corporate PACs, 272 related to labor unions and 995 to trade organizations.
Groups with an ideological mission, single-issue groups, and members of Congress and other political leaders may form "non-connected PACs". These organizations may accept funds from any individual, connected PAC, or organization. As of January 2009, there were 1,594 non-connected PACs, the fastest-growing category.
Elected officials and political parties cannot give more than the federal limit directly to candidates. However, they can set up a Leadership PAC that makes independent expenditures. Provided the expenditure is not coordinated with the other candidate, this type of spending is not limited.
Under the FEC (Federal Election Commission) rules, leadership PACs are non-connected PACs, and can accept donations from individuals and other PACs. Since current officeholders have an easier time attracting contributions, Leadership PACs are a way dominant parties can capture seats from other parties. A leadership PAC sponsored by an elected official cannot use funds to support that official's own campaign. However, it may fund travel, administrative expenses, consultants, polling, and other non-campaign expenses.
Controversial use of leadership PACs
- Former Rep. John Doolittle's (R) leadership PAC paid 15% to a firm that employed only his wife. Payouts to his wife's firm were $68,630 in 2003 and 2004, and $224,000 in 2005 and 2006. The Doolittle home was raided in 2007. After years of investigation, the Justice Department dropped the case with no charges in June 2010.
- One Leadership PAC purchased $2,139 in gifts from Bose Corporation.
- Former Rep. Richard Pombo (R) used his leadership PAC to pay hotel bills ($22,896) and buy baseball tickets ($320) for donors.
- Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's (D) leadership PAC, Team Majority, was fined $21,000 by federal election officials "for improperly accepting donations over federal limits."
Super PACs, officially known as "independent expenditure-only political action committees," may engage in unlimited political spending (on, for example, ads) independently of the campaigns, but are not allowed to either coordinate or make contributions to candidate campaigns or party coffers. Unlike traditional PACs, Super PACs can raise funds from individuals, corporations, unions, and other groups without any legal limit on donation size.
Super PACs were made possible by two judicial decisions in 2010: the aforementioned Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and, two months later, Speechnow.org v. FEC. In Speechnow.org, the federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that PACs that did not make contributions to candidates, parties, or other PACs could accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions, and corporations (both for profit and not-for-profit) for the purpose of making independent expenditures.
The result of the Citizens United and SpeechNow.org decisions was the rise of a new type of political action committee in 2010, popularly dubbed the "super PAC". In an open meeting on July 22, 2010, the FEC approved two Advisory Opinions to modify FEC policy in accordance with the legal decisions. These Advisory Opinions were issued in response to requests from two existing PACs, the conservative Club for Growth, and the liberal Commonsense Ten (later renamed Senate Majority PAC). Their advisory opinions gave a sample wording letter which all Super PACs must submit to qualify for the deregulated status, and such letters continue to be used by Super PACs up to the present date. FEC Chairman Steven T. Walther dissented on both opinions and issued a statement giving his thoughts. In the statement, Walther stated "There are provisions of the Act and Commission regulations not addressed by the court in SpeechNow that continue to prohibit Commonsense Ten from soliciting or accepting contributions from political committees in excess of $5,000 annually or any contributions from corporations or labor organizations" (emphasis in original).
The term "Super PAC" was coined by reporter Eliza Newlin Carney. According to Politico, Carney, a staff writer covering lobbying and influence for CQ Roll Call, "made the first identifiable, published reference to 'super PAC' as it's known today while working at National Journal, writing on June 26, 2010, of a group called Workers' Voices, that it was a kind of "'super PAC' that could become increasingly popular in the post-Citizens United world."
According to FEC advisories, Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate directly with candidates or political parties. This restriction is intended to prevent them from operating campaigns that complement or parallel those of the candidates they support or engaging in negotiations that could result in quid pro quo bargaining between donors to the PAC and the candidate or officeholder. However, it is legal for candidates and Super PAC managers to discuss campaign strategy and tactics through the media.
2012 presidential election
Super PACs may support particular candidacies. In the 2012 presidential election, Super PACs played a major role, spending more than the candidates' election campaigns in the Republican primaries. As of early April 2012, Restore Our Future—a Super PAC usually described as having been created to help Mitt Romney's presidential campaign—had spent $40 million. Winning Our Future (a pro–Newt Gingrich group) spent $16 million. Some Super PACs are run or advised by a candidate's former staff or associates.
In the 2012 election campaign, most of the money given to super PACs came from wealthy individuals, not corporations. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the top 100 individual super PAC donors in 2011–2012 made up just 3.7% of contributors, but accounted for more than 80% of the total money raised, while less than 0.5% of the money given to "the most active Super PACs" was donated by publicly traded corporations.
As of February 2012, according to Center for Responsive Politics, 313 groups organized as Super PACs had received $98,650,993 and spent $46,191,479. This means early in the 2012 election cycle, PACs had already greatly exceeded total receipts of 2008. The leading Super PAC on its own raised more money than the combined total spent by the top 9 PACS in the 2008 cycle.
The 2012 figures do not include funds raised by state level PACs.
2020 presidential election
In 2019, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren self-imposed fundraising restrictions, including "swearing off PAC money." While they do not accept direct financial contributions from either connected or non-connected PACs, both Sanders and Warren were supported by at least one Super PAC.
By January 2010, at least 38 states and the federal government required disclosure for all or some independent expenditures or electioneering communications. These disclosures were intended to deter potentially or seemingly corrupting donations. Contributions to, and expenditures by, Super PACs are tracked by the FEC and by independent organizations such as the Center for Responsive Politics.
Yet despite disclosure rules, it is possible to spend money without voters knowing the identities of donors before the election. In federal elections, for example, political action committees have the option to choose to file reports on a "monthly" or "quarterly" basis. This allows funds raised by PACs in the final days of the election to be spent and votes cast before the report is due.
In one high-profile case, a donor to a super PAC kept his name hidden by using an LLC formed for the purpose of hiding their personal name. One super PAC, that originally listed a $250,000 donation from an LLC that no one could find, led to a subsequent filing where the previously "secret donors" were revealed. However, campaign finance experts have argued that this tactic is already illegal, since it would constitute a contribution in the name of another.
A hybrid PAC (sometimes called a Carey Committee) is similar to a Super PAC, but can give limited amounts of money directly to campaigns and committees, while still making independent expenditures in unlimited amounts.
Top PACs by election cycle
The Center for Responsive Politics maintains a list of the largest PACs by election cycle on its website OpenSecrets.org. Their list can be filtered by receipts or different types of expenses, political party, and type of PAC.
In the 2018 election, the top ten PACs donated a total of $29,349,895 (directly, and via their affiliates and subsidiaries) to federal candidates:
- National Association of Realtors PAC $3,444,276
- National Beer Wholesalers Association PAC $3,433,500
- AT&T PAC $3,433,500
- Northrop Grumman PAC $2,849,740
- National Air Traffic Controllers Association PAC $2,813,250
- International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers PAC $2,797,450
- American Bankers Association PAC $2,768,330
- House Freedom Fund, a leadership PAC associated with Mark Meadows $2,733,340
- International Union of Operating Engineers PAC $2,726,909
- National Auto Dealers Association PAC $2,666,400
- Janda, Kenneth; Berry, Jeffrey M.; Goldman, Jerry (December 19, 2008). The Challenge of Democracy: American Government in a Global World (10th ed.). Boston: Cengage Learning. p. 309. ISBN 978-0547204543. Retrieved May 13, 2013.
- "Civics Glossary". Kentucky Secretary of State. December 20, 2010. Archived from the original on June 7, 2013. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- 52 U.S.C. § 30101"[USC02] 52 USC 30101: Definitions". Retrieved June 3, 2017.
- "FEC Campaign Guide for Nonconnected Committees" (PDF). Federal Election Committee. May 2008.
- Ely Jr., James W. (2012) . Hall, Kermit L. (ed.). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (encyclopedia) (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199916467.
- 2 U.S.C. § 441b
- "Comments on Petition for Rulemaking on Corporate Political Spending, Submitted by 21 Civic Organizations and Individuals" (PDF). Securities and Exchange Commission. January 6, 2012. Retrieved May 10, 2020.
- Murse, Tom. "What is a Super PAC?". About.com U.S. Politics. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
- "End Citizens United raises $4 million, projects $35 million haul for midterms". USA Today. Retrieved August 3, 2017.
- Lehne, Richard (2012). Government and Business: American Political Economy in Comparative Perspective (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE. p. 169. ISBN 9781608710171.
- Haider-Markel, Donald P.; Card, Michael A. (2009). Political Encyclopedia of U.S. States and Regions. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press. p. 896. ISBN 9780872893771.
- Devlin, Lawrence Patrick (1987). Political Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. p. 197. ISBN 0887380786.
- "Number of Federal PACs Increases". Federal Election Commission. March 9, 2009. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved January 13, 2016.
- Kurtzleben, Danielle (September 27, 2010). "DeMint's PAC Spends $1.5 Million in Independent Expenditures". U.S. News & World Report.
- Stern, Marcus; LaFleur, Jennifer (September 26, 2009). "Leadership PACs: Let the Good Times Roll". ProPublica. Archived from the original on December 20, 2009. Retrieved December 10, 2009.
- "Leadership PACs and Sponsors". Federal Election Commission. Archived from the original on March 10, 2012.
- "Congress 101: Political Action Committees (PAC)". CQ's Congress A to Z Online Edition. Archived from the original on July 8, 2011.
- "Leadership PACs". OpenSecrets.org. Center for Responsive Politics. 2018. Retrieved December 27, 2019.
- Seidman, Joel (April 19, 2007). "FBI raids U.S. Rep. Doolittle's home". NBC News. Retrieved January 13, 2016.
- "Political Action Committees". OpenSecrets.org. Center for Responsive Politics. Archived from the original on March 18, 2008. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- Weisman, Jonathan; Birnbaum, Jeffrey H. (July 11, 2006). "Lawmaker Criticized for PAC Fees Paid to Wife". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
- "Pelosi PAC fined $21,000 by federal elections officials". USA Today. February 11, 2004. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
- "Outside Spending (2010)". OpenSecrets.org. Center for Responsive Politics.
- Cordes, Nancy (June 30, 2011). "Colbert gets a Super PAC; So what are they?". CBS News. Retrieved August 11, 2011.
- "FEC Approves Two Advisory Opinions On Independent Expenditure-Only Political Committees". FEC. July 22, 2010. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved January 13, 2016.
- "Advisory Opinion: Statement of Commissioner Steven T. Walther" (PDF). FEC. July 20, 2010.
- Corley, Matt (March 14, 2012). "Political Scientist Morris Fiorina Used The Term Super PAC In 2002". Component Parts.
- Levinthal, Dave (January 10, 2012). "Genesis of a super name". Politico.
- Grier, Peter (January 18, 2012). "Will Jon Stewart go to jail for running Stephen Colbert's super PAC?". The Christian Science Monitor.
- McGlynn, Katla (January 18, 2012). "Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert Expose More Super PAC Loopholes Without 'Coordinating'". The Huffington Post.
- Noah, Timothy (March 29, 2012). "Crankocracy In America. Who really benefitted from Citizens United?". The New Republic.
- Farley, Robert (July 25, 2012). "Winning Our Future". FactCheck.org.
- "Who's Financing the 'Super PACs'". The New York Times. February 20, 2012.
- Riley, Charles (March 26, 2012). "Can 46 rich dudes buy an election?". CNN Money.
- Palmer, Anna; Phillip, Abby (August 3, 2012). "Corporations don't pony up for super PACs". Politico.
- "Super PACs". OpenSecrets.org. Center for Responsive Politics. Retrieved February 4, 2012.
- Mooney, Brian C. (February 2, 2012). "Super PACs fueling GOP attack ads". The Boston Globe. Archived from the original on June 9, 2012.
- Rizzo, Salvador (September 30, 2019). "Analysis: Are Warren and Sanders '100% grassroots-funded'?". The Washington Post.
- Kessler, Glenn (January 25, 2019). "Analysis: Sen. Warren says she doesn't 'take PAC money of any kind.' What does that mean?". The Washington Post.
- "Sanders, Bernard - Independent expenditures". Federal Election Commission.
- Higgins, Tucker (February 20, 2020). "Elizabeth Warren reverses her position on super PAC support as she seeks comeback". CNBC.
- Hensley-Clancy, Molly (February 20, 2020). "Elizabeth Warren Has Reversed On Super PAC Support: "That's How It Has To Be"". Buzzfeed News. Retrieved February 25, 2020.
- "Unknown". Yale Law School. Retrieved January 13, 2016. Cite uses generic title (help)
- Briffault, Richard (2010). "Campaign Finance Disclosure 2.0". Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy. 9 (4): 273–303. doi:10.1089/elj.2010.9408.
- Krishnakumar, Anita S. (February 18, 2007). "Towards a Madisonian, interest-group-based, approach to lobbying regulation" (PDF). University of Alabama School of Law. p. 10.
- "Campaign finance data". Federal Election Commission.
- "Super PACs". OpenSecrets.org.
- Chaddock, Gail Russell (February 2, 2012). "Who funds Super PAC? FEC looks into powerful influence". Alaska Dispatch. Archived from the original on March 8, 2012.
- Garrett, R. Sam (December 2, 2011). ""Super PACs" in Federal Elections: Overview and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service" (PDF). FAS.org.
- "Timely Tips Archive". Archived from the original on February 16, 2016. Retrieved January 13, 2016.
- Blake, John (February 4, 2012). "Forgetting a key lesson from Watergate?". CNN. Retrieved January 13, 2016.
- King, Colbert I. (January 13, 2012). "How D.C. interests sidestep campaign finance limits". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 13, 2016.
- Luo, Michael (February 7, 2012). "The Caucus: A Secret Donor Revealed". The New York Times. Retrieved February 1, 2020.
- "The strange case of W. Spann, LLC". Center for Competitive Politics. August 5, 2011. Retrieved January 13, 2016.
- "FEC Terminology for Candidate Committees" (PDF). Federal Election Commission. 2013. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
- Levinthal, Dave (January 21, 2012). "Meet the super super PAC". Politico. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
- "Top PACs". Center for Responsive Politics. Retrieved December 27, 2019.
- FEC.gov - Political Action Committees (PAC)
- FEC.gov - Speechnow.org v. FEC
- OpenSecrets.org from the Center for Responsive Politics
- FactCheck.org Players Guide 2012
- FactCheck.org Players Guide 2016
- FactCheck.org Players Guide 2018
- PoliticalMoneyLine dot-com company that offers some free information; detailed info requires a subscription
- Sunlight Foundation