2020 Democratic Contenders Are Making the “Cheap Gesture” of Swearing Off Corporate PAC Money, but Big Checks Are Still Flying

Democratic senators that swear off corporate PAC money take much more cash from wealthy individual donors than they do from PACs.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens to a question from the audience during a town hall meeting, Thursday, April 5, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. Harris discussed the shooting death of Stephon Clark on March 18 by two Sacramento police officers, saying that Clark should not have lost his life. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens to a question from the audience during a town hall meeting on April 5, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., became the latest lawmaker to swear off all donations from corporate political action committees, telling a radio host in mid-April that she made the move after being asked about it at a town hall by a constituent.

Harris joins five other senators who have vowed not to take corporate PAC contributions: Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

With the exception of Cantwell, these senators are regularly floated 2020 presidential contenders, giving them political incentive to declare themselves independent of corporate money. Many Americans have grown increasingly distrustful of big business’s influence in politics since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In fact, Harris cited that case when explaining her decision not to accept cash from corporate PACs on the Breakfast Club, a New York radio show.

“I think that money has had such an outside influence on politics, and especially with the Supreme Court determining Citizens United, which basically means that big corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money influencing our campaigns, right? We’re all supposed to have an equal vote, but money has now really tipped the balance between an individual having equal power in an election to a corporation,” Harris said. “So I’ve actually made a decision, since I had that conversation, that I’m not going to accept corporate PAC checks. I just, I’m not.”

Swearing off corporate PAC money can be one positive step a lawmaker can take towards reducing the corrupting influence of money on politics. But it’s far from enough.

The reason is that money from PACs – corporate or otherwise — comprises a relatively insignificant portion of these senators’ campaign contributions, raising the question of whether curtailing donations from corporate PACs will really make a difference. Critics think it doesn’t, noting that the bigger threat of influence comes from wealthy donors who don’t funnel their cash through PACs. But for politicians looking to seize on public discontent with the influence of money on politics, the decision makes for an effective messaging ploy.

Michael J. Malbin, a campaign finance researcher at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, pointed out to The Intercept that Harris has received only a small amount of her total campaign funding from PACs. “However, she also received many of her itemized contributions from individuals whose income is derived from their work as corporate executives,” he said.

Benjamin Page, a long-time researcher of political decision-making at Northwestern University, agreed. “Refusing to take corporate PAC money makes a nice symbol, and I suppose we should give it some credit.  But far more money comes from wealthy individuals,” he wrote in an email. “That is much more important, and I believe it tends to corrupt both the Republican and the Democratic party.”

OpenSecrets, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics, tracked and categorized PAC donations between 2013 and 2018. The data reveals that most of the senators who’ve sworn off corporate PAC money received more from large individual donors — donors giving $200 or more, who can be regular people but also corporate executives and lobbyists — than from PACs in that time period.

  • Cory Booker: 10.37 percent of Booker’s campaign funding has come from PACs, 76.40 percent of which is from business PACs. By contrast, 72.12 percent of Booker’s campaign funding is from large individual donors.
  • Maria Cantwell: Just 0.62 percent of Cantwell’s campaign funding has come from PACs of any kind. In contrast, 73.61 percent of her campaign funding has come from large donors.
  • Kirsten Gillibrand:  6.95 percent of Gillibrand’s campaign funding has come from PACs. Of this proportion, 65.73 percent is from business PACs. Meanwhile, 62.15 percent of her fundraising has come from large individual donors.
  • Kamala Harris: 4.89 percent of Harris’s campaign fundraising has been through PACs; 41.07 percent of this total has been from business PACs. By contrast, 64.99 percent of her campaign funding has come from large donors. (Though the OpenSecrets analysis covered a five-year period, in Harris’s case, it only goes back to 2015, when she first ran for U.S. Senate.)
  • Bernie Sanders: 1.73 percent of Sanders’s funding has come from PACs. Of that, 7.27 percent is from business PACs. 17.70 percent of his funding has come from large individual contributors.
  • Elizabeth Warren: Just 1.4 percent of Warren’s campaign money has come from PACs. Of that, 12.91 percent is from business PACs. Large individual donors made up 29.72 percent of her campaign funding.

These figures make clear that the senators are giving up relatively little money by swearing off donations from corporate PACs — it just isn’t a very big portion of their overall campaign funding. Which raises the question: Is it really possible that the system is being corrupted by sums of money this small? If not, then politicians — and the voters they’re looking to win over — need to look closer at how big money is corrupting Washington.

In response to an inquiry from The Intercept, Harris’s office pointed to the more recent fundraising she’s done since being elected as a freshman senator as evidence of increased small donor backing.

“Sen. Harris is grateful for the support she’s received to help candidates in 2018, and proud that the average contribution is $18 with the vast majority of donations coming online,” Tyrone Gale, a spokesperson for Harris, told The Intercept regarding the senator’s fundraising over the past year.

An analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that, since 2017, nearly 80 percent of contributions to Harris have indeed come from small donors.

“For 2017 onward, her total raised is $3,391,353. And then out of that, $2,624,969 is small individual donors that is for unitemized contributions — money coming from people giving under $200 cumulatively,” an analyst at the CRP told the Intercept.

About $780,000 of her fundraising from 2017 onward came from large individual donors, the CRP analyst added. Around $38,000 during the same period came from PACs.

University of Massachusetts Boston professor emeritus Thomas Ferguson is one of America’s leading academics who studies the influence of money in politics; he is the brain behind “the investment theory of party competition,” which says that politicians are essentially driven by donors, their true political base.

He doesn’t think much of senators disavowing corporate PAC money. “It’s an absolutely cheap gesture that means nothing, that’s why they do it,” Ferguson said in an interview. He pointed out that corporations can also run their money through the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and that these senators haven’t disavowed the comittee’s backing.

A close look at Gillibrand’s and Booker’s top donors makes clear just how little it matters when senators swear off corporate PAC money. Gillibrand’s 11th-largest donor is Morgan Stanley, which did not give a penny of its money to Gillibrand through a PAC. Instead, Morgan Stanley employees donated $40,425 to her campaign committee as individuals. Of the $814,463 that she has received from the securities and investment industry, just $70,500 came from PACs.

Gillibrand was one of the Democratic senators who voted down an amendment that would have broken up Wall Street’s largest banks in May 2010. Jeff Connaughton, an aide to then-Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., who co-wrote the amendment, noted dryly in his book that an Obama administration Treasury official later boasted that if the administration had supported the amendment, it would have passed, but because they didn’t, it didn’t. Speaking about the amendment four years later, Warren noted that it “had bipartisan support, and it might have passed, but it ran into powerful opposition from an alliance between Wall Streeters on Wall Street and Wall Streeters who held powerful government jobs. They teamed up and blocked the move to break up the banks.”

Asked to comment, a staffer in Gillibrand’s office pointed to other votes the senator took that were more antagonistic toward Wall Street, such as opposing the bank bailouts and supporting the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation. She is also one of eight Senate co-sponsors of a modern Glass-Steagall bill that would break up banks.

Booker is a close ally of the pro-Israel community, and his top contributors between 2013 and 2018 were individuals affiliated with NORPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group. But almost all of this money ($154,044 out of $158,871) was given by individuals and did not come through the PAC itself. He’s stayed silent as some of his colleagues have drifted to the left on Palestinian rights, perhaps an indication of the influence of campaign donors.

Booker did not respond to a request for comment.

A better path to limiting the influence of big money is for senators to simply develop a small donor base that supplants large donors of any sort, Ferguson said. “Let them say they won’t take money over, you know, a particular limit — $500, $750, whatever you like,” he suggested.

Page agreed. “What we really need from candidates is reliance on small donations, if possible, as was done by Bernie Sanders and (to a lesser extent) Barack Obama,” he wrote to us.

In that regard, Warren and Sanders deserve an honorable mention, as they are the only senators in this group of six who got the majority of their campaign funding from small individual contributors since 2013. Nobody else comes close.

It’s easy to imagine lawmakers getting swayed by a pool of donors from a big bank or fracking company who give them $2,000 donations; it’s less easy to imagine that if the politicians build a donor base of people throwing in relatively small amounts, that they’d fall under pernicious influence.

(The Onion had an amusing article on this topic in 2016, with the headline: “Bernie Sanders Clearly In Pocket Of High-Rolling Teacher Who Donated $300 To His Campaign.”)

One of the other big problems with campaign spending is that outside groups that are technically independent — meaning they don’t officially support one candidate over another — don’t always have to disclose where their money is coming from. For instance, 501(c)(4) groups are nonprofits that are not required to disclose donors at all. While these groups are not allowed to directly endorse a candidate, they are free to spend money on issues, and they often use their funds to run campaign attack ads.

Warren pioneered her own solution to this type of outside spending by working with her Republican opponent in 2012, incumbent Scott Brown, to form to a pact in which both sides agreed that if an outside group ran an ad, whatever candidate could conceivably benefit had to pay a penalty by donating to charity. The pledge reduced the influence of outside groups in the election, but it also had limitations — for instance, some groups simply shifted their spending to mailers, as the pledge only explicitly applied to broadcasting.

Building a small donor base and developing agreements to keep outside groups out of elections are serious ways for individual politicians to limit the influence of big donors on politics, without changing campaign finance law itself.

Simply curtailing corporate PACs, when they don’t play a very large role in campaigns to begin with, isn’t.

Top photo: Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens to a question from the audience during a town hall meeting on April 5, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif.

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