With the 2020 race for the White House already underway, the issue of campaign financing and the role that Political Action Committees play in U.S. politics has once again been thrust into the spotlight.
Political Action Committees have a significant role in providing funding on the campaign trail. However, PAC’s have recently received large scale attention and people have criticized PAC’s for their role in aiding politicians throughout the election process. Indicative of this, several Democratic candidates for president have already pledged to reject any campaign donations from PACs sponsored by private corporations.
The first PAC was created in 1946, and donated to federal elections that year. PACs continued to give to political parties for the next fifty years and were a significant source of fundraising for elections nationwide. However, the issue arose with not the development of PACs, but the inability to regulate them, according to The New Republic.
“PACs can contribute $5,000 to a candidate per election, with no overall ceiling. Nor are there limits on how much an individual or group, including PACs, can spend on activities—for example, television advertising—to elect a candidate, as long as the spending (known as “independent expenditures”) isn’t coordinated with the candidate. Congressional candidates can spend as much as they raise, and there are no limits on how much a candidate can spend from personal funds.”
Political parties found means to bypass these regulations through the usage of soft money, which is money associated only with a political party and not with a candidate. Through this practice, parties were essentially allowed to endorse a candidate without explicitly doing so, and therefore the intentions behind regulating PACs had failed. Recognition of this failure was brought to center stage in the Senate when Sen. John McCain and Sen. Feingold passed the Bipartisan Citizen Reform Act of 2002, said assistant professor of political science Ben Ogden.
“The Bipartisan Act set out to do away with soft money, or money not directly linked to a political candidate,” Ogden said. “The new act attempted to put caps on independent party spending, as well as prevent corporations from electioneering activities, which allowed corporations to spend money on issue-based ads that could influence an upcoming election.”
This bill did away with soft money and put limits on campaign spending, but the courts upheld this act only for eight more years. Citizens United v. FEC occurred in 2012; the case ended in favor of Citizens United, claiming corporations are allowed free speech through electioneering as long as they are not directly coordinating with a candidate. This case would have a drastic effect on election funding and ultimately led to the creation of Super PACs, said lecturer Dwight Roblyer.
“The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United opened up a window for Super PACs to receive and spend as much as they wanted, as long as it was not directly linked to a candidate,” Roblyer said.
With this new ruling, corporations, interest groups and labor unions were now all allowed to donate freely to the Super PAC of their choice and collectively gather large sums of money to spend in favor of their political ideologies. Super PACs make up a considerable portion of campaign spending and have a large influence on the number of advertisements in the news, according to Bloomberg News.
“During the 2016 election cycle, super PACs spent about $1.8 billion—more than a fifth of all federal campaign spending,” wrote Bloomberg News.
With such substantial contributions, many Americans are fearful that Super PACs are dominating their views. However, research shows that PAC influence is not as influential as most think, according to Ogden.
“Studies are showing campaign funding doesn’t have that tremendous of an effect on outcomes,” Ogden said. “People are not popular because they are funded well; they are funded well because they are popular. Past a certain amount, funding doesn’t really do that much anyway.”
While Super PACs show no substantial effect on popular candidates, they do seem to impact less known ones, added Ogden.
“Money does have an effect on smaller candidates, as they need money to fund their campaigns due to an absence in Super PAC finances,” Ogden said.
Candidates who lack existing popularity and resources may struggle to be competitive because of this factor. While public financing is a liquid resource to these individuals, updates to the system have been absent for over fifty years, and funding is far from adequate to build a campaign around, according to Roblyer.
“The FEC provides public funding through the government, in which candidates can receive funding to run their campaigns,” Roblyer said. “However, these public funds do not contain enough money to carry a candidate through a campaign.”
While public funding does seem to offer a promising thing, it is of no merit unless large enough funds are provided to make a candidate competitive. Therefore to improve our democracy, the main issue we should be taking note of is increasing public funding rather than readdressing the influence of PACs, said Ogden.
“Public funded elections are an advantage because they give everyone an equal shot to win,” Ogden said. “These elections level the playing field by providing resources for those who want them but don’t have them, and encourage candidates to not spend time during fundraising, and more time seeking support from its citizenry.”