About PACs - Political Action Committees

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Money and Politics, Made for Each Other. George Marks / Getty Images

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.

Super PACs

A super PAC is a political committee that can solicit and spend unlimited sums of money. Not legally considered a political action committee, super PACs are regulated under separate rules. While they cannot contribute directly to a politician or political party, they can spend independently on campaigns for or against political figures. Super PACs make independent expenditures in federal elections by running ads or sending mail or by communicating in other ways with messages that specifically advocate the election or defeat of a specific candidate. There are no limits or restrictions on the sources of funds that may be used for these expenditures. Since the Federal Election Commission requires only periodic reports from super PACs, donors to a super PAC's ad campaign may not be made public until after an election takes place.

In 1976, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Buckley v. Valeo that the First Amendment protects the right of individuals to spend unlimited sums of money on political speech. The court upheld limits on contributions to campaigns, but it stated that restrictions on spending "relative to a clearly identified candidate" were unconstitutional.

In its controversial 5-4 ruling in the 2010 case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot ban political spending by corporations or unions. Because these entities are "associations of citizens," the First Amendment right to free speech also applies to these groups. The court considered federal laws that prohibited "corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech defined as an 'electioneering communication' or for speech expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate."

In the court’s majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

“[W]ealthy individuals and unincorporated associations can spend unlimited amounts on independent expenditures. ... Yet certain disfavored associations of citizens--those that have taken on the corporate form--are penalized for engaging in the same political speech. When Government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”

Somewhat unexpectedly, election spending and direct political spending did not increase dramatically in the aftermath of the Citizens United decision. A 2013 survey of 151 staffers of corporate and trade association PACs concluded that 93% of corporations did not direct super PACs or other political efforts. Trade associations engaged more in political spending, with 74% of trade associations not having any super PACs or political activity through their traditional association PACs.

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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Longley, Robert. "About PACs - Political Action Committees." ThoughtCo, Nov. 2, 2022, thoughtco.com/about-pacs-political-action-committees-3322051. Longley, Robert. (2022, November 2). 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 June 5, 2023).