Two things are truer than ever. First, America’s campaign finance system is not perfect. Second, efforts to “fix” it often have made it worse.
Sixteen years ago this week, President Bush signed into law the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA). In hindsight, many recognize BCRA was a mistake and that our federal campaign finance system now is rife with unintended consequences. Resources have been diverted from candidates into ideological non-profits and Super PACs bent on polarity instead of compromise. Candidates spend more time raising money and our two-party system that moderated discourse for over 150 years is increasingly irrelevant and starved for resources, with contributions to the four national party campaign committees down $200 million from 2002 to 2016. This system is out of sync with reality.
I represent the National Association of Business Political Action Committees (NABPAC) and my 220 members operate under the most restrictive regulations of any donors. They are painfully aware of the need for change as contribution limits under which political action committees (PACs) operate have not increased since the Ford administration. Unlike individuals, PAC limits were neither increased nor indexed for inflation under BCRA. This means a married couple today can give more to a candidate for Congress than a PAC with thousands of donors. What’s more, inflation over the last four decades has eroded the current value of a $5,000 PAC contribution to just over $1,000.
PACs of corporations, associations, unions and ideological groups represent the most transparent campaign contributions today and are comprised of millions of hardworking Americans voluntarily giving tens of millions of small contributions every year. PACs consistently report receipts and disbursements to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and these are available for online public viewing. Despite the advent of Super PACs and wealthy candidates, PAC donors still understand that candidates need their own financial resources to wage competitive campaigns and that PACs help provide some of those resources.
In recent weeks, resurgent “reform” lawmakers, including Sens. Cory BookerCory BookerDOJ announces agencywide limits on chokeholds and no-knock entries Fighting poverty, the Biden way Top Senate Democrats urge Biden to take immediate action on home confinement program MORE (D-N.J.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandHochul tells Facebook to 'clean up the act' on abortion misinformation after Texas law Democratic senators request probe into Amazon's treatment of pregnant employees The FBI comes up empty-handed in its search for a Jan. 6 plot MORE (D-N.Y.), and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Boston set to elect first female mayor Progressive groups call for Puerto Rico Fiscal Control Board to be abolished MORE (D-Mass.), have dusted off 1990s playbooks to launch an election-year crusade that blames business engagement in campaigns for America’s political woes. Echoing populist and progressive themes focused on soundbites rather than solutions, these lawmakers have announced they no longer will accept corporate PAC contributions because they somehow unfairly skew policy deliberations.
Business PACs are not the problem, they are a solution. Instead of continuing the status quo, which has destroyed the influence of political parties and put billionaires in charge of our national discourse, Congress should raise PAC contribution limits.
This is not as hard as it seems. Many state legislatures already have recognized that increased contribution limits put money back in the hands of candidates and help them fight back against Super PACs and so-called “dark money.” Even in “reform” minded California, a PAC can contribute up to $58,400 to a candidate for governor. Under Federal law, however, a PAC can only contribute $10,000 over six years to a U.S. senator from California. Thirty-two states have set PAC contribution limits for some statewide candidates equal to or significantly higher than federal limits. Thirteen states allow unlimited PAC contributions to some statewide candidates and 11 currently allow unlimited personal contributions. According to the Institute for Free Speech, 17 states have raised contribution limits since the Citizens United decision.
By preserving a system that dates to an era when bell bottoms, puka shells and fondue were popular, Congress is unwittingly eroding the power of the political parties, encouraging self-funded candidates and accelerating the influence of Super PACs. PACs are a reform of the 1970s that has stood the test of time. Instead of criticizing Americans who support PACs and discouraging them from engaging in politics, Congress should ensure that PACs remain viable in the future: Raise and index for inflation America’s PAC limits – it’s a first step in the right direction.
Geoff Ziebart is executive director of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees (NABPAC), a 501(c)(6) non-profit, non-partisan trade association. NABPAC is not a PAC and does not provide political contribution guidance to its members.