Political Action Committees

Michael Luis Principe. Encyclopedia of Social Problems. Editor: Vincent N Parrillo. Sage Publications, 2008.

Political action committees (PACs) are organizations dedicated to fundraising and supporting the election or defeat of specific political candidates. Their existence traces back to 1944, when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) supported efforts to reelect President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To avoid violation of the Smith Connally Act of 1943, which prohibited federal candidates from receiving contributions from labor unions, the CIO encouraged its union members to voluntarily contribute directly to the PACs effort to support the Roosevelt campaign. These efforts proved so successful that numerous other PACs soon appeared. Today, PACs literally raise billions of dollars in support of thousands of political candidates at both state and federal levels.

Although the number of PACs grew continuously through the 1950s and 1960s, they reached their real prominence during the 1970s. It was then that Congress attempted to limit some of the “big money” influence in national elections by enacting the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of FECA in Buckley v. Valeo. At issue was the conflict between limiting campaign abuses and infringing on the rights of free speech and association contained within the First Amendment. Since all political groups require money to grow and to convey their message, any restrictions on fundraising or campaign spending could impact an organization’s First Amendment rights. In a decision nearly 300 pages in length, the Supreme Court distinguished between contributions and expenditures by stating that, constitutionally, restrictions on contributions were less harmful to freedom of association and speech than were limitations on expenditures. As a result, while the Court struck down FECA provisions limiting presidential candidates’ use of their own or their immediate family’s money to $50,000 and restricting “independent spending” by others in support of a federal office candidate, it upheld FECA provisions placing maximum limits on the amount individuals or groups can contribute to federal office candidates. It also limited the public finance process for presidential candidates whereby funds are matched in primaries and caucuses, while allowing the general election to be fully funded, in exchange for spending limits by candidates.

In subsequent decades, the Supreme Court continued to examine a number of issues concerning independent expenditures. In Federal Election Commission v. National Conservative Political Action Committee in 1985, the Court struck down a spending restriction on independent political committees supporting presidential candidates who had accepted public funding, ruling such expenditures “produce speech at the core of the First Amendment.” Then, in 1996, the Supreme Court addressed a provision of FECA limiting the amount of “coordinated expenditures” a political party could spend in connection with the campaign of a congressional candidate. Ruling that such spending should not be presumed to be coordinated, and maintaining that First Amendment protections applied to these expenditures, the Court in Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. FEC (Colorado I) said that spending limits are unconstitutional as long as the party’s media campaign develops independently of the party’s nominee. Finally, in 2001, the Supreme Court examined the issue of expenditures that were, in fact, coordinated between a political party and the candidate’s campaign in Federal Election Commission v. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee (Colorado II). Ruling that such coordinated expenditures were similar to contributions to the candidate, thus circumventing contribution restrictions, five justices ruled the First Amendment was not a protection against “coordinated expenditure” limitations.

In an effort to prohibit all “soft money” or unregulated contributions to national party organizations, Congress enacted the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) in 2002. Responding to the 2000 elections, when Republicans and Democrats raised nearly $500 million in soft money, the law raised the yearly limits for individual contributions but specifically banned unregulated donations to national party organizations, placed restrictions on contributions to state and local party organizations, and limited broadcast advertising in support of a candidate unless funded by a party’s “hard money” or regulated contributions. As expected, the Supreme Court reviewed BCRA in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission in 2003. Adopting the same 5–-4 positions they took in Colorado II, a majority of the Court upheld the restrictions on “soft money” as well as the limitations on “electioneering communications” in an effort to continue the decades-long fight against expenditure corruption or the appearance of corruption.

Over the course of the past quarter-century, some of the most prominent PACs have emanated from specific corporations (such as Microsoft) or labor groups (such as the Teamsters Union). Politicians have also formed leadership PACs in an effort to support the campaigns of other candidates or test the support for a run at a higher office. PACs not connected to specific corporations, labor groups, political parties, or politicians may be referred to as “nonconnected PACs.” The National Rifle Association is an example of such a PAC. Rather than soliciting contributions from just their employees and members, these organizations can fundraise from the general public as well. With election costs escalating dramatically each year, primarily because of television advertising, the influence of PACs has correspondingly increased. For example, between January 1, 2003, and June 30, 2004, the Federal Election Commission reported that, of the 629.3 million raised by PACs,514.9 million was spent and $205.1 million was contributed to federal candidates. During the 2004 presidential election, the top ten PACs in spending money were EMILY’s List; Service Employees International Union; American Federation of Teachers; American Medical Association; National Rifle Association; Teamsters Union; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; National Education Association; American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; and Laborers’ International Union of North America.

By enacting the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, Congress attempted to restrict any further abuses in campaign finance regulation, but with various factors guaranteeing that money will continue to play a vital role in politics, it seems likely groups will continue to discover ways they can use the BCRA to their advantage. Some of the more prominent factors ensuring the role money plays in politics include (a) the fact that in 2004, those Senate candidates who spent the most money in their campaigns won 88 percent of the time, while those House of Representative candidates who spent the most won 98 percent of the time; (b) the influence political parties have on the general public has declined, opening the door for direct lobbying by single-issue PACs and interest groups; (c) computer technology has provided organizations with a fertile avenue for recruiting members and disseminating their message; and (d) the dramatic increase in diversity among the U.S. population has greatly encouraged the development of single-issue PACs and interest groups.

Since concerns continue to be expressed over the perception that the more powerful PACs possess the ability to purchase policy or take advantage of inequitable opportunities for access to government, numerous proposed reforms seek to help alleviate these issues. Generally, these suggested reforms fall into four categories: (1) supply-side reforms, such as raising or lowering contribution limits or extending limits to a greater range of groups and activities; (2) demand-side reforms, such as reducing the need for money by providing candidates with free or reduced-cost television and radio time or mail; (3) informational reforms, such as having government broadly publicize required disclosures on all contributions made to candidates before an election; and (4) the elimination of the appearance of corruption reforms, such as preventing officeholders from participating in legislative decisions affecting donors who have minimal restrictions on contributions and prohibiting such donors from obtaining state contracts under certain conditions.

Whether these reforms are enacted will depend on a number of factors. The first factor to overcome is the general lack of consensus present over the reform proposals. A wide variety of disagreements exist at present concerning both the category of reform needed and the specific type and degree of reform required. The second factor involves the high degree of self-interest inherent among the legislators and their constituents. The third factor to overcome will be any legislation’s eventual judicial review by the Supreme Court. Although a majority of the Court upheld the provisions challenged in Colorado II and McConnell, the slim majority in those cases may well shift to the minority as the new members of the Court, Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts, have jurisprudent views generally similar to the minority’s ultra-conservative philosophy.

Regardless of any criticism and reforms, PAC activity will continue to flourish over the course of the foreseeable future and, as such, both public and private interest groups will be relied upon to convey and advance the interests of their constituents to legislators. Although, at present, federal election laws prohibit PACs from contributing more than 5,000 to a candidate per election or 15,000 to any national party committee per year, since there are no current restrictions placed on PACs for advertising monies spent in support of candidates or in the promotion of their philosophy or priorities, they will remain a prominent player in the game of politics.