Why ‘no corporate PAC money’ pledges are important

They represent a key step in cracking down on the corrupting influence of money in politics

A person demonstrates outside the Capitol in 2016 at a protest calling for the end of big money in politics. Candidates who reject corporate PAC money are helping fix a broken system, Muller writes.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A person demonstrates outside the Capitol in 2016 at a protest calling for the end of big money in politics. Candidates who reject corporate PAC money are helping fix a broken system, Muller writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 13, 2021 at 10:00am

More than two-thirds of members of Congress cashing a check from the pharmaceutical industry ahead of the 2020 election. Gun manufacturers contributing millions to candidates vowing to stop any enactment of gun control measures. Lawmakers saying they have to pass corporate tax cuts to satisfy their big political donors. What do these stories all have in common? 

Corporations have too much access and influence in Washington, thanks to all the money they can spend on politics. Money in politics was already a problem, but the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision fundamentally changed our political system. By handing corporations the same rights as people, Citizens United has allowed big corporations to spend millions of dollars each year funding candidates, running campaign ads and spending big money to influence legislation in Congress. 

Washington is rigged to bend to corporate influence, which is why it’s so hard to make progress on a myriad of important issues such as lowering prescription drug prices, gun control or climate change. It’s also why Republicans made corporate tax cuts their top priority when they held control in Washington, and why protecting those corporate handouts has become nothing next to sacred for the GOP. 

We started End Citizens United to fight back against this broken system and the corrosive impact that massive unlimited corporate and dark money spending has on our democracy. 

One of the steps we took was to encourage members of Congress to reject corporate PAC money. Unlike other PACs, corporate PACs are controlled by corporations and often benefit from direct, unlimited and undisclosed corporate money to underwrite them. Corporations use their PACs to buy access and influence in Washington. 

During the 2020 election cycle, corporate PACs contributed $172 million to federal candidates. That’s almost 40 percent of all PAC giving, making them the largest source of PAC contributions in the country. And that doesn’t even include corporate giving to party and outside committees or dark money groups. 

While most members of Congress accept corporate PAC money, the candidates who refuse it are taking an important step forward to help fix a broken system. They are sending a message to their constituents that they put people ahead of corporate interests. It also is a significant sacrifice, leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table in a political system in which every last dime matters. 

In 2020, a record 155 federal candidates across the country pledged to refuse corporate PAC money, and the movement continues to grow. Turning away corporate PAC money has been an important step forward for another, equally important reason. It has elevated the issue of anti-corruption and campaign finance reform. 

In fact, voters’ positive response across the county and across party lines for this pledge has helped build major support and momentum for reforms like the For the People Act (HR 1/S1). This critical anti-corruption and voting rights legislation, which would shine a light on dark money, limit the influence of lobbyists and corporate special interests, end partisan gerrymandering and protect the freedom to vote, is overwhelmingly supported by 83 percent of Americans, including three-quarters of Republicans. 

While rejecting corporate PAC money is only one step and corporations still have other ways to pollute the political system, candidates who take the “no corporate PAC” pledge are leading the charge on cracking down on the corrupting influence of money in politics. They are not only bringing the issue to the forefront but also taking on other problems in the system by pushing for legislation, like the For the People Act, or a constitutional amendment to end unlimited spending.

While Democrats in both the House and Senate have made anti-corruption legislation to limit the influence of money in politics a top priority, Republicans have stood in the way of enacting change. Despite a majority of GOP voters supporting reforms, the Republicans in Congress — led by Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Kevin McCarthy — have made it clear they want to defend the status quo and protect corporate influence in our political system. 

That is why we must continue this fight. Rejecting corporate PAC money is an important step in changing the system, with the ultimate goal of passing legislation that will empower the American people so corporate special interests no longer have the loudest say in our democracy. 

Tiffany Muller is the president and executive director of End Citizens United, Let America Vote and the End Citizens/Let America Vote United Action Fund. She has worked on Capitol Hill and at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.