The PACmen

Money is the lifeblood of politics.  And there's a lot of it. The 2008 elections represented the first time when the combined campaign fundraising efforts of the two major Presidential candidates topped more than a billion dollars. Barack Obama raised $750 million dollars. McCain raised $370 million.  But the bare sums don't tell the whole story. Political money is fraught with meaning.

Each political dollar has a history. It comes from a variety of sources, each restricted in its own way. Some money can only be spent for party activities.  Other monies can be counted toward promoting issues. A relatively small amount of money can be used to explicitly elect or defeat a candidate for political office. This is called "hard money". "Soft money" on the other hand is the general term given to funds that can be used for "other activities not directly related to the election of specific candidates." In order to have a sufficient number of dollars for a variety of purposes each candidate must be able to draw from a variety of financial springs if he is not to go dry.

Viewed from the other side of the transaction, political money represented a similarly semantic but by no means symmetrical aspect.  In the eyes of contributors, political money provids a means to an end: to cleanse or corrupt; to obstruct tyranny and further its ends; to build a railway through a town or around it,  according to the intent of those who offered it up. If money was the original sin of political life  it was also the most common vehicle for reform. To some money was a ticket to hell; to others it paved the road to heaven.  The same dollar bill could assume as many meanings as those who gave or took it intended.  It was all things to all men in the hope that it would somehow save some.

Although the vast majority of political contributions in the US comes from individual donations, political action committees (PAC) play an important role. Like many other structures in the campaign funding universe the PAC evolved as an adaptation to restrictions.  "The PAC was created in 1944 by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)  ... to contribute money to pro-union candidates for office and to get around the Smith-Connally Act, which banned direct union contributions to candidates. Business groups began to create PACs in the 1960s and 1970s to counter the strength of the union PACs."

From the signalling point of view the difference between a PAC and individual contributions is smaller than it may seem. As important as the spending power of money itself is the message that comes with it. Individual contributions are often "bundled" -- "campaigns seek out 'bundlers,' people who can gather contributions from many individuals in an organization or community, and present the sum to the campaign. Campaigns often recognize these bundlers with honorary titles and, in some cases, exclusive events featuring the candidate."

One of the most important things "bundling" does is communicate what the money is for. It gives money meaning. It delivers information in addition to cash; it tells the politician why he is being supported with the implicit expectation that he will return the favor. Without a label, political money conveys very little information. It's no surprise that most of the major players in the Washington DC policy universe are  represented by explicitly flagged PACs. There are major business PACs like the American Bankers Association, the National Association of Home Builders or the United Parcel Service. There are major union PACs like the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers, the SEIU, UAW or the Teamsters. There are even "leadership PACs" which are organized by major political figures to demonstrate how they can distribute largesse to their favored proteges. Charlie Rangel has his National Leadership PAC. Nancy Pelosi runs her PAC to the Future.

Leadership PACs are about showing who's boss. "Federal politicians -- senators and representatives -- often form what is called a Leadership PAC to, among other things, raise money to help fund other candidate campaigns. Politicians often do this because they have their eye on a leadership position in Congress or a higher office." In politics conveying the origins of money is almost as important as conveying the money itself. Money by itself would have little corrupting or persuasive influence in government. It is knowing who it is from that does the trick. When you get money from a PAC there is no doubt who it's from. There should be little doubt what it is for. This is a feature and not a bug.

The purest signalling mechanisms are PACs which promote ideas. They promote ideologies. Examples of these are Moveon.org, the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, the National Rifle Association, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and many others. Each of these signals support for an idea and backs those politicians who best advance their cause. Some examples should make this clear. At this writing, Moveon.Org has the following petitions up on its site, each one calculated to further its ideology. Here is what it says on Health Care "reform".

The AMA is a leading member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is spending millions attacking the health care bill as a crushing tax increase. As a medical professional, you have a powerful voice for reform. Can you sign our petition urging the AMA to stop funding opposition to health care reform and quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?

Here is what Moveon.org says on Afghanistan. "President Obama is poised to make a critical decision about the Afghanistan war in the next few weeks. He needs to hear that we need an exit strategy—not tens of thousands more troops stuck in a quagmire." Here is what it says about attempts to curb abortion. "Conservatives forced a dangerous anti-choice amendment into the House health care bill. But we can stop it from being included in the final legislation if we speak up. Can you write a letter to your local paper today?" It's democracy in action. Most attempts to regulate political money have been rebuffed on the grounds that it infringes on Free Speech. Buckley vs Valeo set limits on campaign contributions in the compelling public interest of preventing corruption, but also ruled "that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech".  Moveon.org is not shy about expressing what it wants.

It would have been remarkable if the current mood of dissatisfaction with Washington did not find expression in a PAC. The Tea Parties and the dissatisfaction with RINOs are proof of a genuine political movement. It could only be a matter of time before it found expression. In one of democracy's deepest ironies, that meant it would eventually have to create a PAC to raise money in support of those who pledge to carry out the aims of the program. The Citizen Leader Political Action Committee (or CLAPAC) has been established to promote that kind of program. Long-time commenter Leo Linbeck III is on the board of CLAPAC. Its goals are straightforward and almost diametrically opposed to those of Moveon.org.

  • Limited Government  -- Government is a monopoly, and like all monopolies tends toward corruption and exploitative behavior. By necessity, therefore, the scope and scale of government must be limited. Limited government requires eternal vigilance through active participation in the political process by private sector leaders.
  • Individual Liberty -- The United States was founded on the idea that the citizen is sovereign. Governments must be committed to the cultivation and protection of individual liberty, and its matched pair, individual responsibility. Our political system must serve the people, not rule them.
  • Free Enterprise & Free Trade -- The most powerful, proven instrument of material and social progress is the free market. Entrepreneurs, who use markets to create and capture value, are a critical driver of this progress. To improve the condition of its citizens, a nation needs a legal and social framework that encourages and rewards risk-taking and entrepreneurship, and harnesses comparative advantage.
  • Economic Growth -- Economic growth is essential to the flourishing of a nation. Efficient tax policy, stable and well-defined property rights, rational and restrained regulation, and freedom from the distortions of government encroachment on the private sector are prerequisites for the expansion of the economy and the national wealth.

It's a manifesto that many might sympathize with. But in the real world of politics that means it must create a signaling mechanism to donate semantic money;  to raise funds with an attached label.  SEIU, Nancy Pelosi, the American Bankers Association and Moveon.org all do it.  Now the CitizenLeader Political Action Committee has established itself as a vehicle for expressing part of the dissatisfaction with which Washington is viewed these days. There comes a moment in rebellion when those who resist power realize they need some power themselves; just as those who desire peace must sometimes take up the sword. Living in the world by definition puts people in impossible situations. Paul knew the feeling in the realm of religion. Now we know it with respect to politics.

To those who live without the law I have come as one without the law, in order to win those who are without the law — not that I am really under no law in relation to God, for I am bound by the law of Christ. To those who are weak I have made myself weak, so as to win the weak; in fact, I have become all things to all people, in order that, one way or another, I may rescue some of them.

Participating in politics means living in the world of "all men" and what comes with it.


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