No PAC Money Pledges Are in, But That Doesn’t Mean Big Money is Out: Understanding the No PAC Pledges

Man rejecting money

A majority of voters across the political spectrum support limiting the influence of big donors, and for years, politicians have publicly declared their support for reducing the influence of money on our political system. But privately, those same politicians have run campaigns that exploited loopholes in the law—and, in some cases, created new ones.

Now, more candidates than ever before are recognizing that they need to at least look like they are walking the walk.

In the 2018 election cycle, dozens of Congressional hopefuls announced voluntary pledges to reject donations from sources like corporate PACs. The 2020 crop of Democratic presidential candidates are now adopting similar pledges in the primaries—and, in several cases, going further.  To date, President Trump has not announced any campaign finance pledges for the 2020 cycle.

These pledges can be tough to keep straight. Here’s your guide.

No corporate PAC pledge:

This is a popular one. In the 2018 elections, at least 52 candidates refused money from corporate PACs, thanks in large part to efforts by End Citizens United. In the 2020 cycle, every major Democratic presidential candidate has taken the same pledge.

Corporate PACs are not the same as corporations, which are prohibited from making direct contributions to candidates. But the law allows a corporation to set up a PAC, raise contributions of up to $5,000 from its executives, board members, and shareholders, and then use that money to support candidates. These PACs can contribute up to $5,000 per candidate per election.

Corporate PACs are one way that business interests curry favor in Washington D.C. As a result of the no corporate PAC pledge, for example, in-house Democratic lobbyists for large corporations “have found it harder to mingle with House Democrats when they can’t attend fundraisers by writing a corporate PAC check to get in the door,” Politico reported this year.

Refusing corporate PAC money is a symbolic expression of a candidate’s commitment to reform. But for presidential hopefuls, the pledge may have limited practical effect, since corporate PACs don’t play a huge role in funding presidential primaries.

No PAC pledge:

This pledge goes a step further: it swears off contributions not only from corporate PACs, but also from any other PACs. This includes union PACs, as well as issue-based or ideological PACs, like EMILY’s List or the National Rifle Association’s PAC.

This broader pledge avoids the potentially challenging line-drawing associated with only eschewing corporate PAC contributions. For example, some candidates have been criticized for pledging not to accept corporate PAC money, but then taking contributions from corporate trade associations, which can draw funds from similar sources.

No closed-door fundraisers or donor perks: 

Only two major presidential candidates have sworn off closed-door fundraising events specifically for wealthy donors, and refused to offer perks or access to those donors who can pay a premium. These measures take aim at some of the often-overlooked ways money influences politics--and can also make a dent in a candidate’s fundraising.  

Selling access is common in the U.S. political system. Candidates regularly hold closed-door fundraisers where admission is contingent on making a big contribution. Donors who give even more get extra perks, like a picture with the candidate, or a fishing trip. This cash-for-access system has become such a hallmark of U.S. political campaigns that foreign actors have taken note and tried to exploit it, too

Neither candidate taking this approach is refusing checks from donors who give the $2,800 maximum--but they are refusing to hold events catering exclusively to those wealthy contributors.

Big money fundraisers require candidates to spend a lot of time mingling with the wealthy few, and listening to their concerns, and emphasizing those issues that big donors find important.

Surveys show that the policy preferences of the ultra-wealthy differ from those of average Americans, so it may be harder for candidates to stay resolute on issues that the donor class dislikes if they are facing wealthy donors every evening and relying on them to fund their campaigns.

The contours of these pledges are still being defined—but a $27 ticket for a grassroots fundraiser stands in contrast with the fundraising activities of other presidential hopefuls

No lobbyist money pledge:

This one would seem self-explanatory: no contributions from registered federal lobbyists. Lobbyists are in the influence business, and contributions are one of the key ways they maintain access to the powerful.

As former Congressman (and now acting White House Chief of Staff) Mick Mulvaney told the banking industry, “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”

Most candidates have sworn off lobbyist money, in some cases returning lobbyist contributions already received. One problem, however, is that federal lobbying rules are ridden with loopholes, so many individuals involved in lobbying activities are not actually registered as lobbyists.

The gaps in lobbying disclosure laws are how candidates can pledge not to take lobbyist money, but still hold fundraisers at the homes of corporate executives who oversee D.C. lobbying operations for powerful interests.

No fossil fuel money pledge:

This pledge combines elements of the no corporate PAC and no lobbyist pledges, but it stands out for its focus on a particular industry. Candidates taking this pledge vow to reject funds from fossil fuel companies’ PACs, lobbyists, and executives.

Dozens of Congressional candidates took the no fossil fuel money pledge in 2018—but some were removed from the list after it was revealed that their campaigns accepted large contributions from oil & gas executives.

Pledge to disclose bundlers:

Disclosing bundlers is the granddaddy of campaign finance pledges, embraced by presidential candidates including George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and John McCain.

Well-connected “bundlers” leverage their networks to produce large packages of individual donations for their chosen candidates. These bundling activities do not appear on campaign finance reports, so it is only through voluntary disclosures that voters can obtain information about who may enjoy more clout than campaign finance reports might suggest.

CLC joined Issue One and 14 other organizations across the political spectrum in urging all Republican and Democratic candidates to disclose their bundlers.  

No super PAC pledge:

Unlike PACs, which raise money within limits and may contribute up to $5,000 to candidates, super PACs may raise unlimited sums and spend unlimited amounts on independent expenditures supporting candidates.

By law, super PACs cannot make candidate contributions, and are not supposed to coordinate with candidates—although in practice, candidates have routinely found ways to work closely with supportive super PACs.

Because candidates in theory don’t control these nominally independent groups, they may not be able to prevent a super PAC from spending money to support their campaigns (or at least they can make that claim). A wealthy donor can ignore a candidate’s no super PAC pledge and start one anyway, although candidates can always disavow a supportive super PAC.

The biggest problems arise with single-candidate super PACs, which often operate with the candidate’s blessing, are staffed with his or her former aides, and effectively operate as an extension of the candidate’s campaign.

The Democratic field’s approach to super PACs looks a lot different than it did three years ago.

In the 2016 election cycle, Hillary Clinton benefitted from three super PACs: one super PAC that launched before she declared her candidacy to build a list of supporters, a second that declared it would use a non-existent loophole to directly coordinate with Clinton’s campaign, and still another that eventually spent over $130 million on ads supporting Clinton’s run.

The super PACs were created and run by former Clinton aides, and the Clinton campaign urged wealthy donors to support the groups.

No Democratic candidate thus far has appeared to have worked as closely with a super PAC as Clinton did. And although President Trump attacked his 2016 opponents for being “in total cahoots with their [super] PACs,” in the 2020 cycle he is fully embracing a single-candidate super PAC for his reelection bid.

Brendan directs CLC’s work before federal regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Election Commission (FEC).