Political Action Committees (PACs) are an important aspect of American politics and the American electoral system. Political Action Committees exist legally as a means for corporations, trade unions etc. to make donations to candidates for Federal office – something that they cannot do directly

An organisation will establish a Political Action Committee for which they solicit financial support. In 1974, 608 Political Action Committees  were registered with the FEC (Federal Election Committee). By December 1995, there were more than 4,000 of them. There are more corporate Political Action Committees than any other type. 

PACs work by raising money from people employed by a corporation or in a trade union. These are called “connected PACs” and they rarely ask for donations from the general public although legally they are free to do so. “Unconnected PACs” (also known as “Independent PACs”) are as their title would suggest and they raise money by targeting selected groups within society. In 1985, the Supreme Court decided that there should be no limits on the spending of PACs on a candidates behalf provided that the expenditure is not made in collaboration with a candidate (FED v NICPAC). Thus the PAC must maintain its legal independence. However, an individual’s contribution to a PAC is limited to $5000.

The input by PACs has been largely negative during elections and seem to concentrate on condemning the opponent of the person they are supporting rather than highlighting the achievement and policies of their own candidate. The National Security PAC spent $8.5 million on a campaign that simply attacked the presidential candidate Michael Dukakis (the so-called Willie Horton television advertisements) on behalf of George Bush, the Republican candidate in the 1988 campaign.

In a presidential campaign, PACs contribute to the parties to support the election campaign expenditure of the candidate. The amount a PAC can contribute to a national party is limited to $15,000. Therefore ten PACs could spend a maximum of $150,000 on a national party. However, PACs can contribute a lot more to state and local parties. In some states the amount is restricted but in others it is not.

Exploratory campaigns (pre-Primary election campaigns) are usually financed by a PAC founded by a candidate. They might also be funded by what are called “Foundations” and donations to these are tax deductible which would make them even more attractive to the party faithful. The donations are meant to pay for an undeclared candidate’s political travel and related expenses accrued during a campaign.

PACs funding of Congressional elections is heavily directed towards those already elected and seeking re-election. Data kept by FEC clearly shows that during the Congressional elections of 1988, 1990, 1992 and 1994 Democratic Senators already holding office and seeking re-election received five times more funding from PACs than their Republican challengers. In 1996, Republican Senators had the same financial advantage over Democratic challengers. Some Members of Congress make a point of not accepting any PAC money but others are heavily dependent on it. In the 1989-90 election cycle, over 80% of the financial support of 9 House members came from PACs. The importance of this is clear. If you have access to legal money to finance an election campaign, you are likely to have an advantage over a challenger who does not. This does increase the non-competitive character of the House and it is accentuated by the fact that contributions from PACs and other sources not spent on an election campaign, can be kept for the next cycle thereby giving the office holder a head start over a future challenger. This by its very nature might put off potential candidates who know that they do not have the financial clout required to maintain a solid campaign.

In 1997, it was reported that the 30 Senators elected in 1992 and standing for re-election in 1998 had already raised an average of $1.4 million per Senator. The figure generally agreed to be the ‘start’ point for Senatorial elections is $5 million. Therefore those who have raised over 20% of this sum before a campaign starts have a very clear advantage over a challenger. As those in the House of Representatives are elected every two years, anyone seeking re-election is almost constantly engaged in a search for cash. Many office holders in the House spend more than $1 million during an election campaign.

Anybody wishing to get involved in politics at a national level quite obviously has to have access to large sums of money or it is likely that they will not succeed. There are those in America who wish to see the input of money greatly reduced. “The Washington Post” is a highly influential newspaper and is a leading example of an institution that wants change. However, there is no clear evidence that PACs do influence the voting behaviour of those they helped get elected into either House. But it is difficult to believe that any politician would publicly admit that their voting behaviour was so influenced !! Even Congressmen in the past have been aware that the influence of PACs has been debatable :


“Elected officials are the only human beings in the world who are supposed to take large sums of money on a regular basis from absolute strangers without it having any effect on their behaviour” Barney Frank, Congressman.


PAC records are made public and checked by the FEC. Members of the public are free to scrutinise them as are the media. The days of the secret slush funds do seem to be over. Full and detailed records are kept of Congressional and Presidential election campaign spending. 

Regardless of these checks, there is still unease in some quarters of the influence of PACs and the legal side-stepping of limits placed on candidates of donations received. It seems that there is no will amongst the president, Senators and Congressmen to change a system that has benefited them so much.

In 1996, a reform that would change all this failed by just 6 votes. The McCain-Feingold-Thomson Bill had three main provisions :

1. a voluntary expenditure limit for primary and general elections. The ceiling per state would be proportional to a state’s voting population. Candidates would receive in return 30 minutes free television time and discounted rates for further advertisements.

2. direct contributions from PACs would be forbidden.

3. the use of “soft” money would be substantially restricted.

Therefore the system as described above continues. Ironically, the first major appearance by President Clinton after the publication of the damning Starr Report was in New York where he attended a fund raising evening………..