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‘No PAC money’ pledges leave corporations in a partisan bind

Corporate PACs fear upending of their ‘balanced approach’ as more Democrats reject their cash

The lawmakers refusing PAC money have been almost entirely Democrats, and that's raising concerns for corporations and trade groups. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The lawmakers refusing PAC money have been almost entirely Democrats, and that's raising concerns for corporations and trade groups. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — Hundreds of PAC people escaped Washington earlier this month for a South Florida resort, huddling over the latest trends in political money and seeking clues about the future of their beleaguered enterprises.

One breakout session, dubbed “Under Siege,” aptly portrayed the angst that hung over the crowd like the shade cast by palm trees over the hotel pool. These folks run the political action committees of corporations and business associations just when a growing contingent of lawmakers is rejecting their donations.

It’s not just the number of members of Congress taking no-PAC pledges (more than 50 so far) that’s a problem, but their party affiliation — almost entirely Democratic. If the trend spreads into the 2020 campaign cycle, it could put corporations and associations in a bind.

That’s because, even as candidates and voters alike malign these PACs, they are unlike their big-money cousin super PACs. Corporate campaign coffers are bastions of bipartisanship. Many of the top PACs connected to businesses and trade groups maintain roughly balanced giving ratios — half to Republicans, half to Democrats — and some of them have enshrined such practices.

“We see some PACs that literally have it written into their bylaws that they will achieve a specific split, whether that’s 50-50 or, for some, it’s 60-40,” said Kristin Brackemyre, senior manager of the PAC and advocacy practice for the Public Affairs Council, which organized the Florida conference where this reporter spoke on a panel about campaign finance news.

“It’s not so easy for PACs to say, ‘Well, we’ll just give more money to Republicans,’” Brackemyre added.

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The top two most generous business-oriented PACs in the 2018 election cycle belonged to the National Beer Wholesalers Association, which contributed 48 percent of its $3.4 million to Democrats and 52 percent to Republicans, and the National Association of Realtors, which doled out 51 percent of its $3.4 million to Democrats and 49 percent to Republicans, according to a tabulation by the Center for Responsive Politics.

AT&T’s PAC maintained a 40-60 percent Democratic-Republican ratio in 2018, while Northrop Grumman’s was 43-57 percent, Democratic-Republican.

“PACs work very hard to be very balanced and to have a voice on both sides of the aisle,” Brackemyre said. “Most PACs pride themselves on being bipartisan and supporting candidates who are understanding of their issues, so they can engage in a policy conversation.

“There’s a real fear of just losing that balanced approach,” she said.

Obviously, that fear is not universal.

End Citizens United, the group that has led the campaign to encourage candidates and sitting members to take the no-PAC pledges, has its own proposal to maintain the giving ratios.

“We would like to see Republicans refuse corporate PAC money and put the interests of their constituents ahead of corporate special interests, but we’re not holding our breath,” said the group’s spokesman Patrick Burgwinkle, formerly with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Every Democratic White House contender has taken a no-corporate-PAC pledge, but such vows are largely symbolic for candidates. (The populist rhetoric can help lure small individual donations, though.)

Democratic challengers who won election to Congress in 2018 on a no-PAC mantra will have to decide if it makes sense to continue to reject business money.

In the meantime, corporations and trade groups are mobilizing their lobbyists in an attempt to stem the flow of more lawmakers taking new pledges to turn away their money.

One PAC manager who attended the Florida seminar confided that she’d dispatched lobbyists armed with talking points explaining what corporate PACs really are. For example, the money comes from the personal funds of a select group of executive employees and their family members, not corporate treasuries (although companies and associations bear the administrative cost of operating a PAC).

Though maligned as fonts of corporate influence, it’s worth noting that in the entirety of the nation’s campaign finance milieu, corporate PACs are hardly the biggest problem — in large part because all contributions over $200 are disclosed through the Federal Election Commission. The donations are also limited to $5,000 per election.

In a sign that the anti-PAC movement may result in unexpected consequences, PAC managers say that even some no-PAC-pledge-takers have suggested corporate donations go instead to the party committees or party leaders, who welcome such cash.

Meanwhile, corporations and associations may explore the shadier sides of political money, such as funding independent expenditures and nonprofit organizations that keep their donors private.

In the words of the PAC people: This is just the beginning.

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