"There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can't remember what the second one is," according to Mark Hanna, President McKinley's chief fundraiser.
“In the 2018 federal midterms when we heard a lot about the small donor boom, when you look at the numbers and you take into account giving and spending through federal super PACs you saw that just 3500 big donors who gave $100,000 or more each outspent all 7,000,000 small donors who give $200 or less combined. That is a really distressing thing in a democracy where you have so few people able to outweigh the influence of seven million small donors" (Lee, 2020).
The political action committee or PAC emerged from the labor movement in 1943 and was a way to prohibit direct contribution to political candidates, however allowing participants to make electoral contributions for financing independent expenditures and other independent political activity. Usually, the expenditures are for publicity campaigns, often on television. A series of campaign reform laws enacted during the 1970s facilitated the growth of PACs after these laws allowed individuals, corporations, trade associations, unions, and other groups to form PACs.
Federal law formally allows for two types of PACs: connected and non-connected. The judicial decisions in 2010 added a third classification, independent expenditure-only committees, which are colloquially known as "Super PACs" This decision allowed Super PACS to raise funds from individuals, corporations, unions, and other groups without any legal limit on donation size.
A super PAC is expressly not allowed to coordinate directly with a political party or the candidate they support. This restriction is intended to prevent them from operating campaigns that complement or parallel those of the candidates. However surprisingly, it is legal for candidates and Super PAC managers to discuss campaign strategy and tactics through the media (McGlynn, 2012).
By 2010, the federal government and 38 states required disclosure information for all or some independent expenditures or electioneering communications. These disclosures also apply to super PACs and are tracked by the Federal Election Commission. Unfortunately, despite the disclosure rules, the PACs can spend for campaigns without the voters knowing the identity of the donors before an election. For federal elections, PACs have the option to file reports on a quarterly or monthly basis. (Garrett, 2011). This permits the realization of publicity campaigns financed by the PAC in the final months of the campaign and allows the actual votes to be cast before the report is due. In general, the disclosure reports contain the receipts and the disbursements, and other financial activities, such as loans and debts, of the PAC. Of particular interest to the public are the names of the donors, also the indication of unidentified donors.
The creation of super PACs had an impact on the electoral contributions of the oil and gas industry. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the decade before 2010 the average contribution was $31 million, and the subsequent decade 2010 to 2020 the average was $98 million, a three-fold increase. The year 2010, when super PACs were approved, corresponds to the beginning of a period of growing awareness of the climate crisis later with the signing in 2015 of the Paris Agreement. In the election cycle of 2015-2016, the electoral contributions by the oil and gas industry reached $104 million (88% for Republicans). In the same two years, the lobbying expenses by the petroleum industry amounted to 250 million. In contrast, the young renewable energy industry made contributions of $5.1 million and had lobbying expenses worth $44 million in the same period. In electoral contributions, that is a 20 to 1 ratio in favor of the oil and gas industry.
The substantial Republican campaign contributions and the lobbying by the oil and gas industry had an impact. When Trump came to office, he nominated the chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil as Secretary of State and other pro-oil politicians to the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. The Trump Administration began to weaken energy efficiency standards for automobiles and to revise downward some 80 pollution and environmental regulations. The US withdrew from the Paris Agreement and a precious four years was lost in the climate activities of the federal government. Numerous scientists and experts resigned from the Administration.
How might have the public voted on climate change initiatives? In 2014 researchers at Harvard and Yale published an extraordinary study giving some hints to the answer. “Overexploitation of renewable resources today has a high cost on the welfare of future generations. Unlike in other public goods games, however, future generations cannot reciprocate actions made today. What mechanisms can maintain cooperation with the future? To answer this question, we devise a new experimental paradigm, the ‘Intergenerational Goods Game’. A line-up of successive groups (generations) can each either extract a resource to exhaustion or leave something for the next group. Exhausting the resource maximizes the payoff for the present generation but leaves all future generations empty-handed. Here we show that the resource is almost always destroyed if extraction decisions are made individually. This failure to cooperate with the future is driven primarily by a minority of individuals who extract far more than what is sustainable. In contrast, when extractions are democratically decided by vote, the resource is consistently sustained. Voting is effective for two reasons. First, it allows a majority of cooperators to restrain defectors. Second, it reassures conditional cooperators that their efforts are not futile. Voting, however, only promotes sustainability if it is binding for all involved. Our results have implications for policy interventions designed to sustain intergenerational public goods” (Hauser, p.1 2014).
In addition to the excessive influence of the petroleum industry, several more general problems have emerged. “Despite fears that elections would be dominated by corporations, the biggest political players are actually wealthy individual donors. The 10 most generous donors and their spouses injected $1.2 billion into federal elections over the last decade. That tiny group of major donors accounted for 7 percent of total election-related giving in 2018, up from less than 1 percent a decade prior.”
“The balance of political power shifted from political parties to outside groups that can spend unlimited sums to bolster their preferred candidates. Election-related spending from non-party independent groups ballooned to $4.5 billion over the decade. It totaled just $750 million over the two decades prior. Even political candidates found themselves dwarfed by independent groups that in many cases morphed into effective arms of political campaigns and parties. Outside spending surpassed candidate spending in 126 races since the ruling. That happened just 15 times in the five election cycles prior. Despite promises from the court that monied interests would be required to reveal their political giving, the ruling gave new powers to dark money organizations. Groups that don't disclose their donors flooded elections with $963 million in outside spending, compared to a paltry $129 million over the previous decade” (Evers-Strom, p. 2 2020).
In particular, allowing the oil and gas industry, responsible for most carbon dioxide emissions and thus climate warming, to have unlimited funds for electoral contributions weakens impartial public decision-making regarding our climate and the well-being of our future generations. This continued situation will continue to delay and diminish needed investments for infrastructure in climate mitigation and adaptation. While a public financing system for small donors is welcome, the super PACs are harmful to the US democracy and US climate. They should be reformed.
One of the possible areas of improvement is to have the key disclosure information known more rapidly, not after one or three months. Specifically, the public should have the right to know who are the donors (known and unknown) at the time of the publicity campaign. This is readily available information and a more detailed report could come a month later. Research has shown that knowing that the contribution was from an unknown donor would have an impact on voters (Rhodes, 2019).
The other essential area of reform is to make the possibility of unlimited amounts of election contributions less attractive. My knee-jerk suggestion is to tax the Super PAC contributions, perhaps for funding small donors, and surely experts can find this or other ways.
We have the means to limit Super PACs, but is there the political will to curtail the powerful elites? Are we already a plutocracy?
Lee, C., 2020, "What Are Super PACs And How Do They Impact Elections", Forbes, Aug 10, video.
Evers-Hillstrom, K., 2020, More money, less transparency: A decade under Citizens United, Report of OpenSecrets, Center for Responsive Politics, Jan. 14.
Hauser, O. et al., 2014, "Co-Operating with the Future", Nature, vol. DXi, n. 7508, pp. 220-223.
McGlynn, K., 2012, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert Expose More Super PAC Loopholes Without 'Coordinating'. The Huffington Post.
Rhodes, S. C., et al, 2019, The Role of Dark Money Disclosure on Candidate Evaluations and Viability, Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy, Vol. 18 n .2, 6 June.
Garrett, R. S., 2011, Super PACs, in Federal Elections: Overview and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service, December 2.