By Kristin Kanthak
Political Action Committees, or PACs, get considerable attention in our current debate about how we finance American elections. When most Americans think of a PAC, they think of the campaign contribution arm of interest groups, like the National Rifle Association’s “National Rifle Association of America Political Victory Fund,” or large corporations, like Honeywell International’s aptly named “Honeywell International Political Action Committee.” But as political satirist Stephen Colbert’s “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” super PAC illustrates, individual people can also create PACs. Personal PACs are increasingly a weapon in the arsenal of Members of Congress themselves. Members of Congress gave each other more than $41 million in the 2010 election cycle, and are on pace to best that number in 2012. So why would the recipients of PAC donations create their own PACs? And what can we learn about our legislators by studying their own campaign contributions?
(1) Leadership PACs exist because they solve a problem in the flow of money from contributors to the candidates who actually need them. Big-money donors want to give to sure winners, but sure winners don’t need big money donations. Big money donors are attempting to buy access to Members of Congress, so any money that goes to a losing candidate is wasted. (It bears noting, however, that there is virtually no evidence that lobbyists actually buy votes, or even try to buy votes.) But candidates who might lose are exactly the ones who need money, and leadership PACs solve this problem. Safe candidates with big campaign bank accounts — like those in the party’s leadership — can give their extra money to their partisan brethren, whose victories will help the safe candidate keep or maintain the majority for their own party (cross-party contributions are vanishingly rare). And marginal candidates can find their much-needed place in the flow of campaign dollars.
(2) Leadership PACs make small contributions but they can have big payoffs. No one is going to win an election on contributions from Members of Congress only. Sure, leadership PACs made more than $41 million in contributions in 2010, and that’s serious money to you and me. But it is a tiny portion of the $3.6 billion in total campaign contributions in the 2010 Congressional election. Leadership PACs really matter as signaling mechanisms to the big donors. An early donation from a powerful Member of Congress may send a message to larger contributors: “Contributions to this candidate will make me happy.” So those same contributors who seek to give money to a leadership PAC may also give to the candidates that PAC supports for exactly the same reason. In this sense, leadership PAC contributions are not instrumental. It is not the money they provide, but rather the road map they offer to the deeper-pocketed contributors.
(3) Leadership PACs might be more aptly renamed “Path to the Leadership PACs.” It was notable in 2001 when Hillary Rodham Clinton filed the paperwork for her HILLPAC before she was even sworn in as Senator, and the reasons are clear. More senior legislators attracted the money, since most freshman Senators have nowhere near Clinton’s rolodex. But now, early forays into controlling leadership PACs are de rigueur, especially among Members of the House. These newly-minted members of Congress are trying to build history of helping the party’s marginal candidates, which is now essential for climbing the rungs of the party leadership ladder. Like Clinton in 2001, many of these legislators have sources of financing that exceed their own re-election needs. This is particularly true for legislators in “safe” districts, whose certainty of re-election makes them nearly as valuable to traditional contributors as are their colleagues who have already reached the leadership. Of course, this is not meant to imply that deep pockets provide the only path to power. But it is worth noting that recently nominated GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan gave more from his Prosperity PAC in 2010 than did either Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that same year.
(4) Browsing leadership PAC behavior is actually very easy and kind of fun. The Federal Election Campaign Act mandated that direct campaign contributions be public and they are now searchable online. The trouble is a lot of Members of Congress are shy about their association with a leadership PAC, and it is tough to tell whose is whose, or even if a particular PAC is associated with a Member of Congress at all. For example, if you go to the FEC’s website for the Nutmeg PAC, you can download forms revealing how much it received and spent, and even the name of the treasurer in charge and the address, but not who controls the PAC. A better bet is to go to OpenSecrets.org, where you can learn not only that Nutmeg PAC belongs to Senator Richard Blumenthal, but also that he made contributions to a number of Democratic Senate candidates in 2012. Be warned: you can kill a lot of hours clicking links on OpenSecrets.org. Even the names legislators select for their PACs are interesting. Many names reflect the home district or state of their controlling legislator. For example, Max Baucus of Montana has Glacier PAC and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana has Jazz PAC. Others, like Eric Cantor’s “Every Republican is Crucial PAC,” have names that more closely reflect their purpose (but also note that the acronym for Cantor’s PAC spells out his first name).
(5) Sometimes, Members of Congress make leadership PAC contributions just because they like the recipient. Consider the donation patterns of New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in the 2010 election. She gave to two types of candidates: Senate Democrats, who could help her party keep the majority, and House Democrats from her home state of New York. There was one deviation to this pattern in the entire election: Gillibrand gave $1000 to her dear friend Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.
Kristin Kanthak is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. Her book, The Diversity Paradox, co-authored with George A. Krause, draws on leadership PAC contribution data to show that Members of Congress differentially value their colleagues based on the size of minority groups in Congress. You can follow her on Twitter at @kramtrak.
Oxford University Press USA is putting together a series of articles on a political topic each week for the next four weeks in anticipation of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and American presidential race. This week our authors are tackling the issue of money and politics. Read the previous post in this series: “The Declaration of Independence and campaign finance reform” by Alexander Tsesis and “Money for nothing? The great 2012 campaign spending spree” by Andrew Polsky.
Image credit: “The tariff triumph of pharaoh Wilson” by Udo Keppler in Puck, 1913. Source: Library of Congress.