PACs and Super PACs

Following the Federal Election Campaign Act 1974 (FECA), which limited campaign donations to candidates, the number of Political action committees (PACs) mushroomed, as they offered a way around this legislation. Although the maximum contribution to a PAC was $5,000, donations could be made to an unlimited number of PACs. The Federal Election Commission recorded that as of 2012 there were nearly 4,600 PACs registered in the USA.

The rise of these PACs has contributed to the growth of electoral expenditure and arguably given greater influence to pressure groups that are able to pool donations and support. Although it is hard to evaluate the degree of influence that is exerted from these campaign contributions, there have been some notable examples to suggest they go some way to influence the decisions of lawmakers.

·   In the 2 months following the Newtown shooting the Federal Election Commission disclosed that the NRA had raised $2.7 million through its PAC. Furthermore the Sunlight Foundation highlighted how 42 of the 45 senators who subsequently opposed gun control measures in 2013, to extend background checks on those purchasing firearms, received funds from gun lobbyists. The NRA alone had contributed over $800,000 to 40 of those senators over the previous 23 years.

·   In 2009 the pressure group Mobilization for Healthcare for All led a protest against Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, whom it accused of trying to undermine attempts to secure a 'public option', or government-funded health insurance, in the healthcare bill. It claimed his stance was shaped by his acceptance of more than $1 million in campaign contributions from the medical insurance industry during his time in the Senate.

527 Groups

Following the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) in 2002, which effectively meant that PACs could no longer directly fund adverts which support or oppose a candidate, a number of groups began to appear. These pressure groups circumvented the 2002 regulations by not using 'magic words' to expressly advocate a candidate's election or defeat. Though they have come to be eclipsed by Super PACs they still play a role in voter mobilisation efforts, by encouraging people to register to vote and to get out and vote. It may seem to be non-partisan, but the location and group focused on is usually very partisan. For example the liberal EMILY'S list spent nearly $10 million in 2012 through its 527. This targeted a key Democrat-voting group with the funding of its 'WOMEN VOTE!' program, which mobilised women voters in 22 races across 17 states.

The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v FEC, in January 2010, and the v FEC ruling by the US Appeals Court, in July 2010, both served to lift many spending and contribution limits. As a result there has been an explosion of Super PACs, which can raise unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. Although these PACs must publicly disclose their finances, and they cannot coordinate with candidates or parties, they are free to advocate directly for or against a candidate. Though the impact of this is again hard to judge, especially given that 70% of all reported independent spending in 2012 was by conservative groups largely supporting Republican candidates, the statistics from the 2012 election are staggering:

·      As of July 2013, a total of 1,310 groups had organised as Super PACs.

Sheldon  Adelson became one of America’s heavyweight political spenders — the largest single donor in the 2012 elections — following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, which removed many limits on political contributions as unconstitutional infringements of free speech. Sheldon Adelson and his wife donated over $100 million to conservative Super PACs in 2020, including $75 million to Preserve America, an anti-Biden Super PAC, $50 million to the Senate Leadership Fund, and 25 million to Trump. Under the Trump administration, the Adelsons achieved one of their long-held goals: the relocation of the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in 2018. 

Although pressure groups and corporations give millions of dollars to Super PACs, this does not automatically translate into political power. In 2016, Super PACs spent $215 million supporting Hilary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, while Trump received comparatively less support, with Super PACs spending $85.5 million on his behalf.