If you want to secure the Democratic presidential nomination — and who doesn’t — you’d be advised to announce that you will not accept campaign contributions from corporations. Elizabeth Warren, Kirstin Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders have all “taken the pledge,” as Carrie A. Nation and other temperance movement luminaries would say. So you better do so, too.
Even if you are just running for Congress, it will behoove you to announce that you will forthwith forswear this tainted money proffered by big business. If you don’t, you will look, at least to the uninformed, like a corrupt tool of the special interests. And guess what? It’s not going to cost you anything, anyway. In fact, you will get more money, in the long run, if you do take this road increasingly traveled, which really might make all the difference, at least in Democratic primaries.
The plain facts are these: Corporate PAC money, which is not only highly regulated but also totally transparent, plays a tiny role in federal elections. Corporations are forbidden by law to contribute to candidates. They can contribute through their political action committee, or PAC, which raise money — and relatively small amounts of it — from members who join of their own free will and cannot be penalized if they don’t.
The amounts corporate PACs can give to candidates is limited to $5,000 to any given candidate in any given election cycle, and individual employees can’t give more than that amount to their PAC. The CEO can’t give more than the receptionist, and these limits were set in 1974 and haven’t been increased since.
It can be confusing — and the politicians who are taking the pledge seem to like it this way — but corporate PACs are small fry in the campaign finance game. There are other ways to give and to receive, and people who want to influence elections make good use of them. They can give to so-called super PACs, for instance, and there are no limits there.
A rich couple can contribute more of their money to a campaign than a corporate PAC to which hundreds of employees belong. And a CEO who wants to give more can do so, through other channels. That’s why Hillary Clinton spent so much of her last run at the White House in meet-and-greets with rich people.
Challengers don’t get corporate PAC money anyway, for the most part. Corporate PACs invest in incumbents, which is why, over her long career in Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who says she wants to clean up the system — has received 40 percent of her campaign funds from PACs of one kind or another.
Percentages like that are going down fast, because candidates — especially challengers — have found other ways to raise money and lots of it, without appearing beholden to the special interests.
Beto O’Rourke raised more than $23 million in his bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, without taking any corporate PAC money. And our own Rep. Abigail Spanberger seems not to have sacrificed by eschewing corporate money. “The amount of money of people who have donated to my campaign who have never given in the past,” she said last year, “has more than made up for money from corporate PACs.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, who got more PAC money than any other candidate in the 2016 Republican primaries, brought in just 2 percent of his campaign funds from all PACs combined — not just corporate PACs.
So what’s to lose? Take the pledge, strike a pose of incorruptible probity — and rake in the cash.
Corporate PAC money generally plays a tiny role in federal elections.