Politicians Should Stop the Moral Posturing about PACs

I’m still working on my definitive analysis of the origins of Occupy Wall Street – but meanwhile, I just have to say something about political action committees (PACs), the bêtes noires of American politics.

Alan Khazei just announced that he is ending his candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination to run against Scott Brown for the US Senate. Press reports on his announcement tended to say that he had tried to show a good moral example by refusing to take contributions from PACs; in an earlier campaign debate, he had challenged his main opponent, Elizabeth Warren, to do the same (she declined).

I have just one thing to say about refusing PAC contribution. It’s totally phony!

To see why I think that, let’s consider what a PAC is. The first PACs were actually organized by labor unions. (I bet a lot of you didn’t know that!) Unions were prohibited from making campaign contributions with  funds from member dues, on the grounds that a given member might not support the candidate getting the contributions. On the other hand, it was vitally important for unions to get pro-labor candidates elected; so they invented a new form of organiztion, the AFL’s Committee on Political Education (COPE), and the CIO’s Political Action Committee (CIO-PAC). Members made voluntary contributions — small ones, since we are talking about working people here — to these committees, and the committees were then able to make larger contributions to candidates. The labor movement thereby became an important force for progressive politics.

Prior to the Citizens United decision, corporations were also prohibited from making campaign contributions – so they, too, began to use the PAC form. Most PACs are now based on corporations, but there are many labor PACs, environmental PACs, pro-choice PACs, and many other PACs devoted to progressive causes.

PACs are highly regulated – they have to keep track of all donors, and can give a maximum of $5,000 to a candidate in any one election. When you look at the many ways money enters politics, PACs are actually one of the cleanest.

Some of the less clean ways of contributing:

  • Bundling. A fundraiser collects a lot of individual checks, each payable to a candidate’s campaign committee, and hands them over to the campaign in a bundle. Each individual has stayed within the legal limits, but the bundler has effectively contributed $100,000  or so.
  • Direct expenditure. Instead of contributing money, a contributor pays for ads directly – supposedly without consulting the candidate, but that part of it is very had to enforce.
  • Advocacy spending. Instead of buying ads telling someone to “vote for” or “vote against” a given candidate, the ad attacks a candidate’s issue position, and concludes “call Congressperson X and tell (him or her) what you think of this support for a disgusting policy!”

In comparison to those practices, PACs are clean and well-regulated. The should not be the form, it should be the substance: is a candidate supported by investment banks, or by working people? To simply refuse contributions from PACs, but not refuse individual contributions from bankers, is pure hypocrisy.


p.s. If this has whetted your interest in campaign finance, here are a couple of useful books:

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