About PACs - Political Action Committees

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Political Action Committees, commonly called "PACs," are organizations dedicated to raising and spending money to either elect or defeat political candidates.

PACs typically represent and advocate for the interests of business and industry, labor or ideological causes. Under current campaign finance laws, a PAC can contribute no more than $5,000 to a candidate committee per election—primary, general or special. In addition, PACs can give up to $15,000 annually to any national political party committee, and $5,000 annually to any other PAC. Individuals can contribute up to $5,000 to a PAC or party committee per calendar year. All PACs must be registered with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in order to seek and accept contributions.

According to the Federal Election Commission, a PAC is any entity that meets one of the following conditions:

  • An authorized committee of a candidate
  • Any club, association or other groups of persons that receives contributions or makes expenditures, either of which aggregate over $1,000 during a calendar year
  • A local unit of a political party (except a state party committee) that: (1) receives contributions aggregating over $5,000 during a calendar year; (2) makes contributions or expenditures either of which aggregate over $1,000 during a calendar year or (3) makes payments aggregating over $5,000 during a calendar year for certain activities that are exempt from the definitions of contribution and expenditure

Where PACS Came From

In 1944, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the CIO part of what is today the AFL-CIO, wanted to help President Franklin Roosevelt get re-elected. Standing in their way was the Smith-Connally Act of 1943, which made it illegal for labor unions to contribute funds to federal candidates. The CIO went around Smith-Connally by urging individual union members to voluntarily contribute money directly to the Roosevelt campaign. It worked very well and PACs or political action committees were born. Since then, PACs have raised billions of dollars for thousands of causes and candidates.

Connected PACS

Most PACs are directly connected to specific corporations, labor groups, or recognized political parties. Examples of these PACs include Microsoft (a corporate PAC) and the Teamsters Union (organized labor). These PACs may solicit contributions from their employees or members and make contributions in the PACs name to either candidates or political parties.

Nonconnected PACS

Nonconnected or ideological PACs raise and spend money to elect candidates -- from any political party -- who support their ideals or agendas. Nonconnected PACs are made up of individuals or groups of U.S. citizens, not connected to a corporation, a labor party or a political party.

Examples of nonconnected PACs include groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA), dedicated to protecting the 2nd Amendment rights of gun owners and dealers, and Emily's List, dedicated to protecting the rights of women to abortion, birth control, and family planning resources. 

A nonconnected PAC can solicit contributions from the general public of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

Leadership PACS

The third type of PAC called "leadership PACs" are formed by politicians to help fund the campaigns of other politicians. Politicians often create leadership PACs in an effort to prove their party loyalty or to further their goal of being elected to a higher office.

Under federal election laws, PACs can legally contribute only $5,000 to a candidate committee per election (primary, general or special). They can also give up to $15,000 annually to any national party committee, and $5,000 annually to any other PAC. However, there is no limit to how much PACs can spend on advertising in support of candidates or promote their agendas or beliefs. PACs must register with and file detailed financial reports of monies raised and spent to the Federal Election Commission.

How Much Do PACs Contribute to Candidates? 

The Federal Election Commissions reports that PACs raised $629.3 million, spent $514.9 million, and contributed $205.1 million to federal candidates from January 1, 2003, through June 30, 2004.

This represented a 27% increase in receipts when compared with 2002, while disbursements increased by 24 percent. Contributions to candidates were 13 percent higher than this point in the 2002 campaign. These changes were generally greater than the pattern of growth in PAC activity over the past several election cycles. This is the first election cycle conducted under the rules of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.

How Much Can You Donate to a PAC?

According to campaign contribution limits established every two years by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), individuals are currently allowed to donate a maximum of $5,000 per year to a PAC. For campaign contribution purposes, the FEC defines a PAC as a committee that makes contributions to other federal political committees. Independent-expenditure-only political committees (sometimes called "super PACs") may accept unlimited contributions, including from corporations and labor organizations.

Following the Supreme Court's 2014 decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, there is no longer an aggregate limit on how much an individual can give in total to all candidates, PACs and party committees combined.

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "About PACs - Political Action Committees." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/about-pacs-political-action-committees-3322051. Longley, Robert. (2020, August 26). About PACs - Political Action Committees. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/about-pacs-political-action-committees-3322051 Longley, Robert. "About PACs - Political Action Committees." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/about-pacs-political-action-committees-3322051 (accessed October 6, 2022).