The House of Representatives has passed a sweeping election, governing and ethics bill, known as H.R. 1. One of the key objectives of the comprehensive bill is to reduce the influence of corporate money in the political process. To do so, the “For the People Act of 2021” creates a small-donor public financing system to offset corporate political action committee (PAC) contributions.
As someone who has spent the last year and a half observing and interviewing 140 federal lobbyists, fundraisers, and Capitol Hill staffers, I agree with the policy position — but it is crucial that American citizens understand how the political fundraising system, PAC fundraisers in particular, undermines our democracy and deprives voters of true representation in government. It is more than just the money.
Under the existing federal campaign financing structure, members of Congress (and their political challengers) must personally raise money for their campaigns. To do so, they rely heavily on corporate PAC contributions, and host a constant stream of fundraising events — breakfasts, lunches, dinners, coffees and teas, evening receptions, happy hours, and PAC trips with members of Congress and their staff — that can cost anywhere from $250 for a ‘Bronze’ contribution to $5,000 for a ‘Platinum’ contribution.
Unlike their Super PAC counterparts, which can raise unlimited sums of money, corporate PAC contributions are capped at $5,000 per election to a candidate (both primary and generals). And, although $10,000 is a lot of money, it represents only a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands, and millions of dollars that a candidate needs to raise each election cycle.
The true corrosive impact of PAC contributions, however, is that they produce and entrench an unequal distribution of access to elected officials, warping policy debates and raising questions over who is truly represented in Congress.
When a corporate PAC makes a political donation, they send a lobbyist to the fundraising event to give it on their behalf. For many lobbyists, one of the crucial parts of their work is attending fundraising events for Members of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Lobbyists I interviewed explained the rationale behind corporate PAC donations without euphemism or nuance: Stated plainly, they are paying for the opportunity to have critical face time with Members of Congress.
Not only do fundraising events present an opportunity for lobbyists to acquire critical insights into the timing of the Congressional system — inside information such as which bills are likely to be taken up, and how those bills might proceed — they also allow for lobbyists to gain privileged access to elected officials themselves. Because most non-fundraising meetings occur between lobbyists and Congressional staffers, fundraising events are unique opportunities for lobbyists to gain direct access to Members of Congress, which allows them to build important relationships that become advantageous as they make “asks” in the future.
Moreover, lobbyists are also keen to build relationships with the people who actually raise the funds themselves, who act as gatekeepers controlling access to elected officials and their staff. In fact, fundraisers that I interviewed said they can usually secure a meeting for a donor, even when they would be blocked through the usual channels — the usual channels being that of non-donor, or ordinary Americans who are not paying middlemen for access to their elected representatives.
Ending corporate fundraising would be a boon for everyone. Members hate fundraising. They largely find it awkward to ask for money, and many would prefer to use that time on policy and their constituents. Lobbyists don't like it either. They describe fundraising events as awkward, boring, and are staged “on the cheap” (to maximize the revenue for the campaign). Even some fundraisers don’t like fundraising. One fundraiser described the monotony of D.C. fundraising as akin to the movie “Groundhog Day.”
And, following the deadly U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, companies like Amazon, Morgan Stanley, The Motion Picture Association and Disney, declared that they would suspend contributions to the 139 Republican representatives and eight GOP senators who did not vote to certify the results of the Electoral College. Others, like Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and Citigroup, said that they would pause all political donations, regardless of political party or Electoral College vote.
To be sure, ending corporate PAC contributions and fundraisers would not end the influence of corporations in our democratic process. Firms like Amazon, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, and associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable will still be able to hire teams of government relations persons and contract lobbyists to meet with Members and their staffs. They will still be able to organize grassroots, astroturf, or grass topping events to influence public policy by showing the support of a Member’s constituents for a given policy outcome.
However, by removing PAC fundraising from the political equation, we would remove one of the critical levers that corporations have to generate inequality in the American political system — by denying them privileged access to our elected officials.
Nicholas Occhiuto is a postdoctoral associate in organizational behavior at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations; He received his PhD in sociology from Yale University, his MA in sociology from Columbia University, and his BA in sociology and philosophy from New York University.