The no-corporate-PAC pledge is a great way for politicians to show how much they care about reducing the influence of money in politics. But what is it really costing them?
Listen To This Story
There aren’t a lot of things Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) agree on, but both have signed a pledge not to take money from corporate PACs.
They are joined by other high-profile lawmakers, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Ted Cruz (R-TX), as well as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL). In total, over 70 Democrats have signed the pledge along with a few Republicans.
Despite these candidates’ reputations as members of the left and right wings of their parties, their decision to forego donations from corporate political action committees is generally “less about ideological positioning than it is about relative fame with the national population,” said Sarah Bryner, director of research and strategy at the transparency organization OpenSecrets.
In other words, well-known politicians can sign such a pledge because they don’t actually need money from corporate PACs. Their campaigns are funded by millions of dollars from individual donations.
Still, for those who want to get corporate money out of politics, it’s an encouraging sign that the number of lawmakers taking the pledge is at an all-time high.
The group organizing the no-corporate-PAC pledge, End Citizens United, sees it as a way for candidates to commit to a broader set of reforms that would go much further than the pledge in cutting corporate money out of politics.
Candidates who take the pledge are helping to drum up popular support for measures like counteracting the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, the group argues. Citizens United uncapped corporate and individual donation limits to Super PACs, which are a major source of corporate influence on elections.
Whatever their motivations for taking the pledge, record numbers of Democrats and Republicans are making their refusal to accept corporate PAC money a part of their campaign messaging.
“As candidates weigh the costs and benefits, they might say, ‘You know what? The benefit of being able to tout myself as a person of the people outweighs the cost of not taking this money,’” said Bryner.
Democratic candidates who campaigned on refusing corporate PAC donations did better fundraising-wise than those who didn’t in 2022. Popular, well-established candidates are in a better financial position to take the pledge anyway, but signing on to it may attract individual donations.
Some well-known Republicans like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Cruz have sworn off PAC money from “woke” corporations and seen an uptick in individual donations.
Popularity makes it easier for candidates to take the pledge, but it isn’t the only determining factor.
“It’s a little bit limiting to say, ‘Well if you’re popular you have the luxury to take the no-corporate-PACs pledge,’” explained Bryner.
Incumbents in safe districts might decide to take a modest funding hit in exchange for taking the pledge, and unpopular challengers have little to lose from refusing corporate funds since corporate PACs typically donate to incumbents.
Furthermore, refusing money from corporate PACs sounds bolder than it actually is. Individual donations dwarf what candidates receive from these PACs.
“PACs are essentially capped at $10,000 an election cycle. This coming election cycle, individual donors will be allowed to give $6,600,” said Bryner. “So a single person is approaching the amount a PAC can give to a member of Congress’s candidacy.”
The pledge doesn’t stop wealthy individuals who run corporations from directly donating to campaigns.
Corporations and individuals can also give unlimited donations to Super PACs, which advocate for or against candidates but are barred by federal law from giving money to or coordinating directly with campaigns.
“At the Super PAC level, I’d say that’s the second most impactful place that corporate money can be involved in the process,” said Bryner.
Trade association PACs are another source of corporate money for candidates that the pledge doesn’t address — they’re not run by corporations directly, so they’re not “corporate PACs.”
But whether they count as corporate entities is “maybe a distinction without a difference,” according to Bryner. Trade association PACs are composed of dues-paying member corporations. At the company level, “You’re not directly donating, but you are paying dues to your trade association and in doing so allowing them to act on your behalf.”
Regardless of the reasons candidates choose to take the pledge, its increasing popularity is worth taking seriously.
“The actual impact, I think, is elevating the awareness that corporations have on political outcomes in American public dialogue, which I think is significant and not worth forgetting,” Bryner said of the pledge.