When Bundling Political Contributions Is Legal and Illegal

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

Attorney General Eric Holder
Attorney General Eric Holder was a bundler, raising at least $50,000 for President Barack Obama's campaign. Mark Wilson/Getty Images News

Bundling political contributions is a common practice in congressional and presidential campaigns. Bundling is a form of political fundraising in which one person or a small group of people convince their friends, coworkers and other like-minded donors to write checks to a candidate for public office. 

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The term bundler is used to describe the person or small group of people, often times lobbyists, who pool or aggregate these contributions and then deliver them in one lump sum to a political campaign.

In the 2000 presidential campaign, Republican 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 President Barack Obama's largest fundraisers in the 2008 campaign received key posts in his administration, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics.

Bundling is a legal albeit regulated way for a campaign supporter to get around 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 a bundler can persuade like-minded donors to give at once, whether by inviting them to a fundraiser or special event, and turn over massive sums of money to federal candidates.

Disclosure Laws on Bundling Political Contributions

The Federal Election Commission requires that candidates for federal office disclosure the funds bundled by registered lobbyists. The threshold for reporting a bundled contribution is $17,600, according to the FEC.

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Sometimes candidates voluntarily disclose the names of large bundlers.

In the 2008 presidential election, for example, Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican nominee John McCain both agreed to make public the names of bundlers who raised more than $50,000.

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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 Are We Talking?

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. 

Related: How Much Did the 2012 Presidential Race Cost?

"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," reports the good-government group Public Citizen.


Rewarding Bundlers

According to Public Citizen, bundlers who deliver large amounts of campaign cash to candidates have been rewarded with access to prominent 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.

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"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.