An Explanation of Bundling in Campaign Finance

How Politicians Rake in Big Bucks from Just a Few Important People

Bundles of Cash
Bundlers raise hundreds of millions of dollars for congressional and presidential candidates.

 Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Bundling campaign contributions is a common practice in American congressional and presidential elections. The term bundling refers to a form of fundraising in which one person or small groups of people — they might be lobbyists, business owners, special interest groups or activists seeking legislative action — convince their wealthy friends, coworkers and other like-minded donors to simultaneously write checks to their preferred candidate for public office.

It is not uncommon for bundlers to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in a presidential-election year and receive special treatment in return for their work.

A bundler is the person or small group of people who pool or aggregates these contributions and then delivers them in one lump sum to a political campaign. In the 2000 presidential campaign, Republican nominee George W. Bush used the term "pioneers" to describe bundlers who raised at least $100,000 for his White House bid.

Bundlers are often rewarded by successful candidates with plum positions in an administration or other political favors. Four out of five of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's largest fundraisers in the 2008 presidential campaign received key posts in his administration, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics.

Bundling is a legal way for campaign supporters to circumvent individual contribution limits set forth in federal campaign finance laws.

 An individual can contribute up to $2,700 to a candidate for federal office in a single election cycle, or up to $5,400 a year. But bundlers can persuade like-minded donors to give at once, typically by inviting them to a fundraiser or special event and in turn rolling up those contributions into massive sums of money to federal candidates.

Bundling Is Not Heavily Regulated

The Federal Election Commission, the entity that regulates campaign-finance laws in the U.S., requires candidates for federal office disclose the funds bundled by registered lobbyists. For everyone who's not a lobbyists? Disclosure is voluntary and sporadic. In the 2008 presidential election, for example, Obama and Republican nominee John McCain both agreed to make public the names of bundlers who raised more than $50,000.

The FEC rules, however, are considered loose by government watchdogs and easily circumvented by crafty bundlers and lobbyists wishing to remain out of the public eye. In some cases, bundlers are able to avoid disclosing their role in raising large sums of money for a campaign by never physically pooling and delivering the checks, just organizing the fundraising. 

How Much Money Do Bundlers Raise?

Bundlers are responsible for generating tens of millions of dollars to their preferred candidates. In the 2012 presidential race, for example, bundlers delivered about $200 million to Obama's campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. "Bundlers, who are often corporate CEOs, lobbyists, hedge fund managers or independently wealthy people, are able to funnel far more money to campaigns than they could personally give under campaign finance laws," states the good-government group Public Citizen.

 

Why Bundlers Bundle

Bundlers who deliver large amounts of campaign cash to candidates have been rewarded with access to prominent White House advisers and strategists, official titles and privileged treatment in campaigns, and ambassadorships and other plum political appointments. The Center for Public Integrity reported that Obama rewarded about 200 bundlers with jobs and appointments.

"Bundlers play an enormous role in determining the success of political campaigns and are apt to receive preferential treatment if their candidate wins," Public Citizen wrote. "Bundlers who direct money to presidential candidates tend to be first in line for plum ambassador positions and other political appointments. Industry titans and lobbyists are more likely to receive preferential treatment from elected officials if they raised large amounts of money for them."

When Is Bundling Illegal?

Bundlers seeking political favors often promise big money to candidates. And sometimes they fail to deliver. So in some cases, bundlers have been known to give large sums of money to employees, family members and friends with the implicit goal of having those employees, family members and friends turn around and contribute to a candidate for Congress or the presidency.

That's illegal.