Companies are abandoning anti-democratic politicians, but they shouldn’t abandon their PACs

Much-maligned PACs represent an ideal way to fund our elections. And the American public agrees

From left, Reps. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, Barry Moore, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Andrew Clyde and Jody B. Hice object to certifying Georgia’s Electoral College votes on Jan. 6 after the mob attack on the Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
From left, Reps. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, Barry Moore, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Andrew Clyde and Jody B. Hice object to certifying Georgia’s Electoral College votes on Jan. 6 after the mob attack on the Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 15, 2021 at 6:08pm

President Donald Trump’s baseless allegations of election fraud and the attack on the U.S. Capitol roiled up more than just Washington insiders. Many large companies, including American Express, Microsoft and AT&T, announced they would suspend PAC donations to the 147 Republicans who voted to overturn presidential election results.

It’s hard to blame firms that chose this path because they were following both their consciences and their contribution criteria. But it’s also hard to blame corporate PACs, the maligned and often-misunderstood instrument for corporate political funding.

New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, who also co-anchors CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” wrote on Jan. 12 that “the donations directed by a corporate PAC undermine the credibility of the company and the politician taking it.” While it’s fashionable to assume Americans dislike all forms of business political involvement, public opinion paints a different picture.

Polls show the American public considers PACs to be one of the top three most preferred ways to finance elections, next to self-funded campaigns and individual contributions.

In a 2020 Morning Consult/Public Affairs Council poll of 2,199 Americans, 70 percent approved of candidates spending their own money on elections, 67 percent approved of individual contributions and 55 percent approved of PACs. Importantly, only 23 percent disapproved of PACs. Polls in 2013 and 2019 produced similar results.

Despite the “no PAC” pledge that many Democratic candidates have taken, support cuts across party lines, with 57 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans approving of PACs. And we’re not just talking about support from older voters. Young people (age 18-34) supported PACs by a 59 percent to 14 percent margin, which was the highest score among generations.

Among the least preferred ways to fund elections were super PACs (40 percent approval) and using tax dollars to finance campaigns (28 percent approval).

For those who think PACs are what make D.C. “swampy,” I refer you to another Morning Consult/Public Affairs Council poll in 2019 that asked, “What’s wrong with Washington?” That study tested 10 controversial activities in Washington politics. The four most serious problems were all things done by politicians: being too worried about getting reelected, profiting from being in office, being too partisan and spending too much time raising money. PACs came in tenth place.

What does the public understand that PAC critics don’t? For starters, PACs are the best example of campaign finance reform that works. Contribution ceilings ($5,000) are low, which limits the amount of a PAC’s potential influence. The same limit applies to people who support a PAC, which prevents any individual from having a disproportionate impact on how money is dispersed. PACs may only solicit from certain employees and contributions must be voluntary. 

Unlike so-called dark-money funds, PAC contributions are transparent. You can go to FEC.gov or Opensecrets.org and review every contribution of more than $200. While PACs aren’t required to have boards and bylaws, most companies use them to build trust in a PAC’s governance and make tough decisions when funds are limited.

PAC giving criteria vary, but most limit contributions to candidates who understand the company’s business, agree with them on key issues, represent regions where the firm has facilities or serve in leadership. A growing number empower boards to withhold support to candidates who don’t share the company’s values.

Whether one’s cause is preserving the rain forest or speeding the review process for bio-drugs, collective action makes a difference. PACs permit corporate, association or union employees to pool small-dollar contributions to support like-minded candidates. PACs also help to promote employee, member and citizen involvement in politics.

In the wake of the events of Jan. 6, about 50 companies have now announced they are banning contributions to the 147 legislators in question or taking a pause from making PAC donations or, in a few cases, pledging to stop political spending altogether.

What’s surprising about this is that so many political commentators are surprised. For one thing, big companies care about their reputations, and media coverage of this story might do serious damage if they were not to respond. But CEO statements of the past week also make it clear that Corporate America is fed up with anti-democratic actions by political leaders and their followers. And they are determined to do something about it.

The media and activists are right to expect businesses to take a close look at which politicians they support and whether that support is warranted. But they’re wrong to call for the banning of one of the most heavily regulated, fairest and most accepted means of funding elections.

Doug Pinkham is president of the Public Affairs Council, the leading association for public affairs professionals worldwide. He has led the Council since 1997 and is a frequent speaker on public affairs, politics, communications and corporate management.