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‘No corporate PAC’ pledges aren’t always so pure

Contributions sometimes go through other lawmakers or party committees

Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., Malinowski, says he is proud he doesn’t take direct contributions from corporate PACs. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., Malinowski, says he is proud he doesn’t take direct contributions from corporate PACs. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corporate PAC money is yucky, but if it comes via contributions from other lawmakers or party committees, the taste seems to suddenly improve.

That’s the message from many incumbents in the club of 50-something Democratic lawmakers who refuse corporate political action committee dollars but still accept donations from colleagues and party committees that take the derided funds.

Numerous freshman Democrats who ran on a no-corporate-PAC-money mantra opened their re-election coffers to donations this year from party leaders and committees, such as the New Democrat Coalition Action Fund, that are chock full of funding from some of the nation’s best-known companies, federal election reports show.

Taking donations from party leaders and committees allows pledge-takers to stick to their vows while cleansing some of the “dirty” dollars and, yes, diluting the influence of the companies but not banishing such money entirely.

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Reps. Jason Crow of Colorado, Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger, Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin, New York’s Max Rose and New Jersey’s Tom Malinowski are among freshman Democrats who reported contributions during the year’s first quarter from party leaders, leadership PACs and other committees that take corporate dollars.

Malinowski, in a statement from his office, says he’s proud he doesn’t take “any direct contributions from corporate PACs, and no corporation can walk into my office and say ‘you are beholden to me.’”

The New Democrat Coalition Action Fund has reported donations from 21st Century Fox, Amgen, Credit Suisse, Dominion Energy, Home Depot, JP Morgan Chase, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Procter & Gamble and Verizon, among others.

Many lawmakers who shy away from donations from the PACs of individual corporations will take contributions from PACs of business trade groups, including the National Association of Realtors and the National Beer Wholesalers Association. They also welcome donations from corporate executives.

Even so, backers of the no-corporate-PAC pledge say it’s still an important move in the right direction. It offers incumbents and newcomers alike an opportunity to distance themselves from corporate PAC donations, allowing them to send a signal to voters that lawmakers are working for them — not big-money interests. The spread of the pledges has riled the PAC world.

“Members of Congress who refuse to take corporate PAC money are sending a powerful message that they are fighting to change a broken system in Washington that works for special interests instead of regular people,” says Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesman for End Citizens United, which has called on all candidates to reject corporate PAC donations. “The only reason a corporate PAC gives money is to benefit the corporation’s bottom line and members who reject corporate PAC money are fighting to make our government put people first, not corporate profits.”

Though End Citizens United encourages candidates to take no-corporate-PAC pledges — and keeps a list of those folks — the group’s endorsement is not contingent on it.

Crow’s campaign, for example, reported $7,500 from the New Democrat Coalition Action Fund, and the FEC report includes a note that the contributions had been “earmarked” through this organization. Spanberger’s campaign reported $5,500 from the group and also included the disclaimer, as did the first quarter reports of Slotkin, Malinowski and Rose. None of the earmarked sources was reported from corporate PACs.

Corporate PACs may earmark their donations for candidates through other committees, says Jan Baran, a campaign finance expert and partner at Wiley Rein. But a “candidate who receives a contribution that has been earmarked must disclose the original donor who has earmarked a contribution through a conduit,” he says.

Other frequent contributors to the slate of no-corporate-PAC lawmakers include the committees of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and South Carolina’s James E. Clyburn, the No. 3 House leader who serves as majority whip.

Pelosi’s numerous corporate contributors this year include Facebook, Google, Anheuser-Busch and Goldman Sachs. Hoyer’s list includes Walmart, Morgan Stanley, FedEx and General Electric, while Viacom, Disney, Goldman Sachs, General Motors and Duke Energy have given recently to Clyburn.

Not all the Democrats who have made no-PAC pledges take donations from colleagues and committees with ties to corporate PACs.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York disclosed zero donations transferred from other committees. Ditto for Reps. John Sarbanes of Maryland, who is behind House Democrats’ campaign-finance overhaul (HR 1), and Ro Khanna of California.

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