Political Action Committees (PAC)

Political action committees (PACs) are organizations that raise and distribute campaign contributions to candidates for Congress and other offices. Their rapid growth during the 1970s and 1980s made them for a time one of the most controversial aspects of the campaign financing system. However, in the late 1990s, they were all but eclipsed by the hot issues of “soft money” contributions and issue advocacy advertising, two types of political spending not restricted at the time by federal campaign finance law.

Organizations commonly thought of as PACs fall into two main categories: those that are connected to either a labor organization or incorporated entity and those that are not. The first category—the largest—includes the PACs of corporations, labor unions, trade and health associations, and membership organizations. The nonconnected category includes ideological and single-issue groups.

The latter also includes a small but influential group of PACs within Congress called “leadership PACs,” or politicians' PACs. These PACs, which are separate from members' campaign committees, are set up by members to raise money for political goals other than reelection to Congress. These goals might include election to a leadership position, appointment to a prestigious committee, support for the party leadership, earning a favor from another member, or backing for a run for the presidency. Money raised by the leadership PACs may be used not only for direct contributions to other candidates but also to cover a variety of expenses, such as polling, direct mail, office overhead, and travel by the sponsoring member.

Sometimes the term “political action committee” is used more broadly to refer to other political groups formed to influence elections. Such groups—nicknamed “stealth PACs”—were set up under Section 527 of the tax code and initially were not subject to regulation under federal campaign finance law. Legislation requiring that these groups register with the Internal Revenue Service and disclose most of their receipts and expenditures was enacted in 2000.

PAC Contributions

Business PACs for years distributed their contributions relatively evenly between the two political parties. However, with the Republican takeover of Congress following the 1994 elections, business PACs made a decided shift toward the Republican Party. Labor PACs give overwhelmingly to Democrats, whether they are in power or not. Among other types of PACs, recipients vary. The National Rifle Association's PAC, for example, gives more to the Republicans, while EMILY's (an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast) List, an abortion-rights PAC, contributes exclusively to Democratic women candidates.

Corporate PACs gave $84 million to congressional candidates in the 2000 campaign, of which nearly 68 percent went to Republicans. Association PACs gave $68 million, with almost 62 percent going to Republican candidates. Labor PACs gave $50 million, with about 92 percent going to Democrats. Ideological PACs gave almost $36 million, with 59 percent going to Republicans.

Under federal law most PACs are permitted to contribute $5,000 per candidate, per election. (Primary, general, run-off, and special elections are considered to be separate elections, each with a $5,000 limit.) There is no limit on the total amount they can give to all candidates. The National Association of Realtors PAC, for example, gave $3.4 million to federal candidates in the 1999–2000 election cycle. The top fifty PACs gave nearly $75 million.

PACs also can spend as much as they want independently to help candidates—for example, with heavy television advertising—as long as they do not coordinate their actions with the candidates' campaigns. But many candidates do not appreciate outside interference—well intentioned or not—in their campaigns, as reflected in the less than $15 million PACs devoted to independent expenditures in the 2000 congressional elections. However, there was some speculation that independent expenditures might become more popular when new campaign finance restrictions went into effect after the 2002 election. (A federal district court in May 2003 found parts of the 2002 law to be unconstitutional. Its ruling was then appealed to the Supreme Court.)

Although PACs date back to the 1940s, their significance in political campaigns began with the passage in 1971 and 1974 of laws to reform campaign financing. These laws, along with later Federal Election Commission and Supreme Court rulings and a general waning of political party influence, allowed PACs to become a major factor in the financing of congressional elections. In 1974 only about 600 PACs were registered, and they gave about $12.5 million to congressional candidates. By 2000 registered PACs numbered more than 3,800, and PACs gave $245 million to congressional candidates running in 2000. (PACs contributed nearly $12 million more in the 1999–2000 election cycle to congressional candidates who were not up for election in 2000 but in need of money to retire earlier campaign debts or to bankroll a future race. Most of these were Senate candidates.)

Top PAC Contributors to Candidates, 1999–2000 Election Cycle

Realtors PAC

$3.4 million

Association of Trial Lawyers of America PAC

$2.7 million

American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees—P E O P L E, Qualified

$2.6 million

Dealers Election Action Committee of the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA)

$2.5 million

Democrat Republican Independent Voter Education (DRIVE—Teamsters Union)

$2.5 million

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Committee on Political Education

$2.5 million

Machinists Non-Partisan Political League

$2.2 million

UAW-V-CAP (United Auto Workers Voluntary Community Action Program)

$2.2 million

American Medical Association PAC

$1.9 million

Service Employees International Union PAC

$1.9 million

Source: Federal Election Commission.

Note: Figures have been rounded.

Over the years PACs have provided a significant share of congressional candidates' funds. In the 2000 election cycle, almost one-fourth of their receipts came from PACs. PAC contributions are particularly important in House races—nearly a third of House candidates' funds in 2000 came from PACs. Senate candidates usually are less reliant on PACs—about 12 percent of receipts in 2000 came from PACs.

With the exception of candidates' leadership PACs and committees that spent soft money on issue ads, PACs have little involvement in presidential elections. They provide only a small share of funds needed by candidates seeking their party's presidential nomination, and they are barred from contributing to publicly financed general election campaigns.

Critics and Defenders

Many people are sharply critical of the role played by PACs, arguing that they allow well-financed interest groups to gain too much political influence. By accepting contributions from PACs, critics say, members of Congress become dependent on them. That may make the members reluctant to vote against the interests of the PAC, either from fear of losing the PAC's contributions or from fear of having the PAC help finance their political opponents. PACs also have been criticized for increasing their clout by “bundling” together checks from individual contributors and other PACs and then passing them on to candidates. EMILY's List has perfected the practice of bundling.

Critics also have argued that PACs have a bias toward incumbents that reduces competition in elections. Campaign contribution statistics show that PACs have a strong preference for incumbent legislators who are running for reelection, regardless of party affiliation. PACs give most often to incumbents because they are in a position to support PAC interests when legislation is drafted as well as when it comes to a vote. This is particularly true for committee chairs and party leaders, who have more power than other members to see that legislation is approved. Many of these leaders also have leadership PACs and solicit for party accounts as well. Challengers represent a gamble for PACs because only a few defeat incumbents in any election. By contributing to a challenger, PACs risk alienating a successful incumbent. Of the $245 million that 2000 congressional candidates reported receiving from PACs during the campaign, nearly $184 million went to incumbents, about $27 million to challengers, and $34 million to candidates for open seats.

But the argument that PACs perpetuate a “permanent” Congress with little turnover lost much of its force when Congress changed hands after the 1994 elections.

Defenders of PACs argue that the groups provide a legitimate means by which citizens can join together to support candidates. PACs encourage people to participate in politics, they say, and offer the most efficient method for channeling campaign contributions. PACs say they are seeking not to buy votes but to gain access to members of Congress, so that their views will be heard on legislative decisions affecting them.

Proposals to curb the influence of PACs have been debated by Congress. Some called for banning PAC contributions altogether, some would have reduced the amount a PAC could contribute to a candidate, and others would have imposed an overall limit on the amount of PAC money a candidate could accept. Some members of the House called for weakening PACs by providing public funds for congressional campaigns, as the federal government has done for presidential campaigns since 1976. But no such proposal has passed Congress. Legislation that included public financing and limits on PACs was vetoed by President George H. W. Bush in 1992 and effectively delayed to death in the next Congress. Efforts in the next several Congresses never reached the president's desk.

By the late 1990s the PAC issue had been taken off the table, overshadowed by growing controversy over campaign money that fell outside the reach of federal campaign finance law. PAC-related provisions were not included in the campaign finance legislation enacted in 2002. PAC contributions—limited by law and well-disclosed—paled in significance when compared to the unrestricted flow of soft money ostensibly for nonfederal political party activities and the rapid growth of “issue” advertising that critics said were thinly veiled campaign ads supporting or opposing specific candidates.

Additional Readings

Cigler, Allan J., and Burdett A. Loomis, eds. Interest Group Politics. 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2002.

Corrado, Anthony, Thomas E. Mann, Daniel R. Ortiz, Trevor Potter, and Frank J. Sorauf, eds. Campaign Finance Reform: A Sourcebook. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1997.

Sabato, Larry J. PAC Power: Inside the World of Political Action Committees. New York: Norton, 1984.


Document Citation
"Political Action Committees (PAC)." CQ Electronic Library, CQ's Congress A to Z Online Edition, coaz4d-179-8944-501277. Originally published in Congress A to Z, 4th ed., edited by David R. Tarr and Ann O'Connor (Washington: CQ Press, 2003). http://library.cqpress.com/congressaz/coaz4d-179-8944-501277 (accessed May 29, 2008).
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/congressaz/coaz4d-179-8944-501277

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