Politicians saying 'no' to corporate PAC donations are pulling a stunt

Politicians saying 'no' to corporate PAC donations are pulling a stunt
© Keren Carrion

Over the past couple of weeks, a flurry of Democratic candidates announced they would refuse campaign donations from “corporate PACs.” U.S. senators like Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBiden, Sanders lead field in Iowa poll Gillibrand says she's worried about top options in Dem 2020 poll being white men Biden team discussed 2020 run with O'Rourke as VP: report MORE (D-N.J.), plus several House candidates, made this known in a bid to win the support of End Citizens United, a PAC that supports more restrictions on political speech. Those candidates join sitting lawmakers like Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden, Sanders lead field in Iowa poll The 2020 Democratic nomination will run through the heart of black America Gillibrand says she's worried about top options in Dem 2020 poll being white men MORE (D-Mass.) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) in pledging to decline all money from PACs linked to trade associations, law firms and other “for profit entities.”

The goal of this pledge is irrelevant to actually “ending” Citizens United, but that Supreme Court decision does not relate to “corporate PACs” at all. Such PACs have been legal for decades, and are tightly regulated by reporting and disclosure laws, as well as relatively low limits on how much they can give and receive. Indeed, PACs sought to represent a more ideal form of political expression among those who believe regulations instituted after Citizens United are inadequate. Notably, the pledge does not apply to PACs affiliated with labor unions or specific politicians.

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In any case, the pledge seems purely symbolic. As Republican campaign finance lawyer Cleta Mitchell notes, “corporate PACs” have nothing to do with accepting money “from” businesses. They cannot donate to their own PACs, since they cannot donate money to candidates. The law states that corporations may not “favor or disadvantage anyone by reason of the amount of their contribution or their decision not to contribute.”

So, all funds are voluntarily contributed by employees to their own company’s PAC, and the managers of that PAC can, in turn, give no more than $5,000 per election to candidates. So, the impact of pledging not to accept “corporate PAC” money is limited by the fact that such contributions are already limited by law, and the same people who contribute to PACs can still give to candidates individually. (In fact, individuals are the source of the vast majority of campaign contributions).

Putting these facts together lends credence to Mitchell’s label of this pledge as a “stunt.” It seems designed to cynically exploit the complexity of campaign finance law in order to signal opposition to “corporate” influence in politics in general. Many ordinary Americans won’t know the difference between “corporate PACs,” “super PACs,” and other vehicles for political speech, and may wrongly believe that firms can donate unlimited sums to candidates. Given the nuances of campaign finance law, they can’t really be blamed for this. But pro-regulation activists count on those errors to build their narrative.

What makes pledges like these harmful, rather than merely unimpactful or symbolic, is when those misunderstandings are used to stigmatize perfectly legitimate forms of political expression. That’s how voluntary pledges become compulsory policies. Here, these pledges presume that contributions from corporate PACs are not only malignant for democracy, but are more so than contributions from other sources.

Given the structure of “corporate PACs,” which only receive contributions from employees of a corporation and not the business itself, this is essentially equivalent to saying that donations from anyone who works for a corporation are a corrupting influence on our democracy. This tracks with the common and misleading strategy of saying a candidate received “X dollars from industry Y,” implying that those donations come from firms themselves when they really come from employees of those firms.

The reason campaign contributions are important is that they allow Americans to support a candidate or cause that they believe best represents their views or interests.  Indeed, they are a form of free speech protected by the Constitution. Every American has a right to participate in democracy regardless of their organizational affiliations, whether as an employee of a corporation, a member of a union, a participant in an advocacy group, or all of the above. That elected government representatives so willingly and routinely dismiss the opinions of such groups of Americans as “special interests” ought to be offensive.

This “corporate PAC” pledge represents cynical symbolism that may not impact our campaign finance system directly. But by perpetuating ignorance about political participation, it undermines our national discourse and subtly degrades support for First Amendment rights.

Joseph Albanese is a research fellow at the Institute for Free Speech.