Vows to reject corporate PAC money on the rise for incoming Congress

More lawmakers swear off donations, which aren’t indexed for inflation

Members of the next Congress who pledged not to accept corporate PAC contributions include Democratic Sens.-elect Peter Welch of Vermont, left, and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, right, here posing with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer on Nov. 15. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Members of the next Congress who pledged not to accept corporate PAC contributions include Democratic Sens.-elect Peter Welch of Vermont, left, and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, right, here posing with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer on Nov. 15. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 5, 2022 at 5:01am

In the 118th Congress, a growing contingent of lawmakers is telling corporate PACs: We don’t want your cash. 

More than 70 members say they are swearing off such contributions, indicating that a trend, almost exclusively among Democrats, that caught on during the 2018 election cycle has persisted. Despite the growth, the move has not led to the enactment of major campaign finance policy or legislative changes.

With divided control of Congress next year, even a minor overhaul of political money laws seems unlikely. 

Nevertheless, business political action committees, or PACs, which are not indexed for inflation and must follow disclosure requirements, face an uncertain future as the bang for their bucks diminishes.

When candidates pledging not to take corporate PAC money began to catch on, some saw it as a gimmick for outsiders who usually don’t get such contributions anyway. But there is no indication that lawmakers who took the pledge are reneging on it in large numbers. Recent cycles have also seen an explosion in donations of small amounts by more donors, especially among Democrats.

“Refusing corporate PAC money is one way to show a commitment to addressing the problem of money in politics, and its popularity helps keep the issue at the top of the agenda,” said Adam Bozzi, vice president for communications at End Citizens United, a group aligned with Democrats that tracks which members pledge to decline donations from corporate PACs.  

“We expect the trend to continue to grow, and it will help us work toward progress on anti-corruption legislation, like ending dark money,” Bozzi said, using a term for committees that spend money to influence elections or policy but do not disclose their donors.  

Bozzi’s group has tracked 72 members of the incoming 118th Congress (73 if Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock wins a runoff Tuesday) who reject corporate PAC money, up from 59 in the 117th Congress and 56 in the 116th Congress. A handful of Republicans have sworn off the money in recent years, with Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz sticking to his pledge of not taking donations from “woke corporations.”

High-profile losses

Two Democratic lawmakers who swore off corporate PAC donations in past elections and then took them this cycle lost reelection this year: Elaine Luria of Virginia and Iowa’s Cindy Axne

Luria’s $340,000 haul from such PACs included donations from Google, Altria, Raytheon and General Dynamics. Axne’s campaign disclosed receiving $140,000 from company PACs. Both amount to small percentages of their overall fundraising totals, which were nearly $10 million for Luria and almost $7 million for Axne, according to Federal Election Commission reports through Oct. 19.  

Some newly elected members say they will continue to forgo corporate PAC money, including Sens.-elect John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Peter Welch of Vermont and Reps.-elect Delia Ramirez and Nikki Budzinski of Illinois, Greg Landsman of Ohio, Summer Lee of Pennsylvania and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington, among others. 

End Citizens United, which takes its name from the Supreme Court case that paved the way for independent-expenditure-only super PACs, and its affiliated Let America Vote disclosed more than $6.5 million on outside spending, according to a tabulation from the nonpartisan OpenSecrets.org. 

Corporate PACs’ position 

Business PAC representatives say they plan to explain to lawmakers and candidates what they’re really about. 

“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding around our PACs,” said Micaela Isler, executive director of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees. “When people hear ‘corporate PAC,’ they immediately think corporate treasury funds are being used to elect candidates to Congress. At the federal level, we know that is not permissible.”

The PACs of individual companies include donations from a pool of eligible donors, mostly company executives, and they have to disclose those funds and the donations they make to federal candidates.   

“We are not the dark money,” Isler added. “Everything we do is on public record, and it’s very limited.” PACs may donate $5,000 per election to congressional candidates, and that amount does not change with inflation. 

Individual contributions were originally capped at $1,000 per election but were indexed to inflation and had grown to $2,900 per election in the 2022 cycle.

Long-term prospects 

Although the no-corporate-PAC pledges haven’t been followed by an overhaul of campaign money law, they provide a way for Democrats to signal that they’re willing to leave some money on the table, even if it isn’t a huge amount, campaign finance overhaul advocates say. Bozzi said the original surge of members rejecting corporate PAC money during the 2018 cycle helped pave the way for Democrats’ recent sweeping political money and voting rights overhaul measures, which did not pass the Senate in the past two Congresses but did pass the House. 

Meredith McGehee, a longtime advocate for campaign finance overhaul, said no-PAC pledges have always been “more of a signal” than an actual policy. 

“Anytime a candidate does anything that lessens his or her ability to raise money, that is some skin in the game,” McGehee added. 

Even as partisan bills aimed at creating an optional public financing system for congressional candidates and other measures attracted no GOP support, Democrats held together, she said. 

“Democrats were incredibly united on a bill that had everything including the kitchen sink about democracy reform. That was pretty remarkable,” McGehee said. 

As a result, supporting major campaign finance overhaul has become almost a basic plank for Democrats, similar to support for abortion rights. 

Even with more members signaling some support for political money changes by forgoing corporate PAC donations, McGehee doesn’t see much prospect for action in the 118th Congress. 

Neither does Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen. But, Gilbert said, groups like hers plan to continue to push for such overhauls at the federal level and are lobbying the Biden administration for executive action, such as requiring federal contractors to disclose more about their political spending, including to groups that aren’t otherwise required to make public their donors. 

“We’re hoping this finds fertile ground,” she said. 

The increase in no-corporate-PAC lawmakers is not a substitute for an actual overhaul, McGehee said, but it’s not a meaningless move either: “It shows both how the Democratic caucus is becoming more progressive and shows that they think the issue has power, which is good news for reformers.”