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In nearly every presidential election cycle since Watergate, voters have been barraged with new forms of political advertising funded by a variety of individuals and groups. Since passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (known commonly as McCain-Feingold), this political expression increasingly has been funded by nonparty organizations.
In following the ubiquitous publicity surrounding these campaigns, voters have become familiar with — albeit often confused by — buzzwords and catchphrases such as 527s, soft money, hard money, 501(c)(4)s, independent expenditures, bundling, express advocacy, electioneering communications, issues advocacy and political action committees. The latest entry is “super PACs.” Based on media coverage and survey data, voter impressions of this new catchphrase are decidedly negative.
As executive director of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees — the nation’s only association solely dedicated to advancing business PACs and helping them navigate complex rules and regulations — I am increasingly concerned that the term super PAC, while convenient and catchy, may not provide a distinction sufficient enough for lawmakers and the public to differentiate these groups from others in the campaign finance system.
Nobody seems willing to explain how super PACs operate in our campaign finance system compared to traditional corporate PACs (legally known as “separate segregated funds”) or other hard-money sources painstakingly designed to accommodate, simultaneously, protected speech and the demand for campaign funds.
Indeed, the opposite may be true — some would prefer to lump us together and demagogue all money in politics rather than take the time to make thoughtful distinctions. Many of the same would prefer funding campaigns with taxpayer money and completely removing private donors from the system.
These so-called reformers are using the uproar over super PACs to call for sweeping new campaign finance changes. Using words such as “high-powered” and “high rollers,” they portray super PACs as nefarious and possibly corrupt donors. Their reference to donors “pouring” money into campaigns mischaracterizes such spending and misleads average voters. PACs all too familiar with similar characterizations used to demonize them in the 1980s and 1990s know firsthand the effectiveness of such attacks.
“Reformers” were stung by the rebuke of their positions in the landmark Citizens United decision, but in their zeal to foment opposition to super PACs, they negatively affect the public’s understanding of all PACs. This could have dire consequences for the involvement in our democracy by millions of Americans who express themselves by making voluntary personal contributions to business, labor and ideological PACs.
What we really need is an informed national conversation about the role of money in politics. As part of this conversation, NABPAC members would like the public to know that:
• Traditional PACs remain what they have been since the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 — highly regulated sources of transparent, voluntarily donated, noncorporate funds given in support of federal candidates struggling to compete in an expensive and multifaceted campaign environment.
• Traditional PACs are allowed only to solicit a specific “restricted class” of individuals within their organizations, and any donations coming from them are entirely voluntary.
• Unlike every other hard-money source in the campaign finance system, traditional PACs were not indexed for inflation by McCain-Feingold and therefore increasingly will be unable to help candidates and parties keep pace with the increasing costs of campaigns. The purchasing power of the $5,000-per-election limit established for PACs in 1974 has been eroded 80 percent by inflation in the past 38 years. In that time, the average cost of a House campaign has risen from $53,000 to $1.1 million, and the average Congressional district has grown by more than 215,000 people.
• A wealthy couple may now contribute $5,000 per election to a candidate for Congress — the same amount as a PAC with thousands of donors.
• The PACs of trade associations with corporate members are treated as second-class citizens in the campaign finance system. This is due to an arcane provision requiring, in writing, prior approval before a voluntary contribution is solicited from even a single stockholder or executive of a member corporation.
• In contrast to super PACs, traditional PACs largely prefer making direct contributions to candidates and political parties rather than to outside organizations such as super PACs that have little or no accountability.
We have come far since the brown paper bags of cash that funded campaigns from the Civil War to Watergate. PACs are one reform that has stood the test of time. Traditional PACs bring together millions of Americans who want their small, voluntary contributions to make a difference in electing to public office those individuals who espouse their shared beliefs.
It’s time to have a thoughtful conversation about the many different types of legal mechanisms that fund modern campaigns and stop demagoguing everyone who chooses to exercise their right to freely participate in our campaign finance system.
Geoff Ziebart is executive director of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees.