Understanding Congress Part 7 of 7: The Influence Landscape
Influence takes many forms in a complicated web of direct spending and political advocacy. This part is designed to provide and overview of the different types of efforts used to gain influence with decision-makers in Congress.
Below the infographic there is a textual description jump to here.
Part 1 of 7: Congress Overview
Part 2 of 7: Making sense of Congressional Terminology
Part 3 of 7: How are laws are made
Part 4 of 7: Types of Bills
Part 5 of 7: Communicating with Congress
Part 6 of 7: How Votetocracy can help Americans
Part 7 of 7: The Influence Landscape
The primary goal of much of the money that flows through U.S. politics is this: Influence. Corporations, industry groups, labor unions, single-issue organizations – together, they spend billions of dollars each year to gain access to decision-makers in government, all in an attempt to influence their thinking.
By far, the biggest source of campaign funding is individual contributions. These contributions are limited by the FEC. Direct contributions to a candidate from corporations are prohibited. However, recent rulings (Citizens United) allow corporations to use money from their treasures to fund their own campaign ads and contribute to PACs.
Independent spending is nearly synonymous with soft-money. Both have attracted criticism because of the blurry line that exists between directly or indirectly advocating a specific candidate. Certain types of organizations (Non-Federal groups) are permitted to raise and spend unlimited funds on candidate and issue advocacy provided that it is not in coordination with candidate’s campaign. Restrictions on how these efforts are conducted do exist. Language directly endorsing a candidate, such as “vote for” may not be used. However, touting or exposing an opposing candidates record during a campaign is permitted.
Political influence happens in a wide variety of ways through efforts made by organizations, corporations, lobbyists and individuals. There are largely two categories of terminology: official terminology and unofficial terminology. Official entities include Political Action Committees (PACs), Political Parties, Candidate Campaign Committees, Non-Profit 501(c) Organizations, Lobbyists and 527 Organizations. You may often hear terms such as Bundlers, Interest Groups or Advocacy Groups, Non-Federal Groups and Soft-Money. These terms are applied to generalities and or collections of organizations or efforts made.
Interest Groups or Advocacy Groups
Interest Groups and Advocacy groups are a catch all phrase for an entity that is politically driven or issue driven. This could include 527 groups and 501(c) organizations and others. Just about any interest group you can think of has a presence in Washington—and spends money to maintain that presence. In addition to campaign contributions and independent-spending, interest groups also spend money on lobbying, which is the other side of the influence coin.
Soft money is not used to for specific candidate advocacy. Instead, it’s a term generally applied to monies used to influence elections and support or oppose legislation pertaining to issues. Since most soft money is received and utilized by organizations that are non federal organizations such as 527s, this money is not regulated by the FEC.
Hard money is are monies contributed directly to a candidate of a political party. Both the source and the amount are regulated and monitored by the Federal Election Commission.
Bundlers gather contributions from many individuals and pass the money to a campaign. Either directly or by advocating for or against a candidate and issues the candidate may support or oppose. Bundlers often garner large numbers of small contributions. Since reporting contributions below $200 is not required, the total contributed by Bundlers is hard to measure. While bundling is a legal activity is has drawn criticism because tracking it is difficult.
You've heard it before—it's not what you know, it's who you know. In our nation's capital, success comes with a combination of knowledge and personal connections. The Revolving Door is a term applied to those who have left Congress and are now in roles that call upon current Congressional leaders and staff. Many ex-public servants are now employing professional relationships and know-how accumulated through public service to advance the goals of their private employers.
A group set up to raise unlimited contributions called "soft money," which it spends on voter mobilization efforts and so-called issue ads that often criticize or tout a candidate's record just before an election in a not-so-subtle effort to influence the election's outcome. 501(c) groups and 527 groups may raise non-federal funds.
Nonprofit, tax-exempt groups organized under section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code that can engage in varying amounts of political activity, depending on the type of group. For example, 501(c)(3) groups operate for religious, charitable, scientific or educational purposes. These groups are not supposed to engage in any political activities, though some voter registration activities are permitted. 501(c)(4) groups are commonly called "social welfare" organizations that may engage in political activities, as long as these activities do not become their primary purpose. Similar restrictions apply to Section 501(c)(5) labor and agricultural groups, and to Section 501(c)(6) business leagues, chambers of commerce, real estate boards and boards of trade.
Professional advocates make big bucks to lobby members of Congress and government officials on the issues their clients care about. But the money that industries, companies, unions and issue groups spend on lobbying is often just a drop in the bucket compared to what they can reap in return if their lobbyists are successful. Here you can see who spends what on federal lobbying and where they focus their resources.
For the longest time, campaign ads were almost exclusively produced by candidates and political parties, but in recent years outside issue groups have been getting in on the action. They often operate as so-called 527 committees. Sometimes mysteriously named, these advocacy groups frequently have ties to labor, big business and super-wealthy individuals. Unlike political committees, they can raise unlimited "soft money," which they use for voter mobilization and certain types of issue advocacy, but not for efforts that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a federal candidate or amount to electioneering communications.
527s are tax-exempt groups organized under section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code to raise money for political activities including voter mobilization efforts, issue advocacy and the like. Currently, the FEC only requires a 527 group to file regular disclosure reports if it is a political party or political action committee (PAC) that engages in either activities expressly advocating the election or defeat of a federal candidate, or in electioneering communications. Otherwise, it must file either with the government of the state in which it is located or the Internal Revenue Service.
A political committee that raises and spends limited "hard" money contributions for the express purpose of electing or defeating candidates. Organizations that raise soft money for issue advocacy may also set up a PAC. Controlled by companies, trade associations, unions, issue groups and even politicians (a subset called "leadership PACs"), these committees pool contributions from individuals and distribute them to candidates, political parties and other PACs. PACs can also spend money independently on political activities, including advertising and other efforts to support or oppose candidates in an election.
Most PACs represent business, such as the Microsoft PAC; labor, such as the Teamsters PAC; or ideological interests, such as the EMILY's List PAC or the National Rifle Association PAC. An organization's PAC will collect money from the group's employees or members and make contributions in the name of the PAC to candidates and political parties. Individuals contributing to a PAC may also contribute directly to candidates and political parties, even those also supported by the PAC. A PAC can give $5,000 to a candidate per election (primary, general or special) and up to $15,000 annually to a national political party. PACs may receive up to $5,000 each from individuals, other PACs and party committees per year.
Non-Connected PACs are those formed by single-issue groups, and members of Congress and other political leaders. They may accept funds from any individual, business PAC or organization. As of January 2009, there were 1,594 non-connected PACs, the fastest-growing category.1
Connected simply means the PAC is connected to an organization such as businesses, labor unions, trade groups, or health organizations. Most of the 4,600 active, registered PACs are "connected PACs" established by businesses, labor unions, trade groups, or health organizations. These PACs receive and raise money from a "restricted class," generally consisting of managers and shareholders in the case of a corporation and members in the case of a union or other interest group. As of January 2009, there were 1,598 registered corporate PACs, 272 related to labor unions and 995 to trade organizations.2
A committee established by a member of Congress to support other candidates. Under the FEC rules, leadership PACs are non-connected PACs, and can accept donations from an individual, business or other PACs. While a leadership PAC cannot spend to directly support the campaign of its sponsor (through mail or ads), it may fund travel, administrative expenses, consultants, polling, and other non-campaign expenses. It can also contribute to the campaigns of other candidates.345 Between 2008 and 2009, leadership PACs raised and spent more than $47 million.6
The 2010 election marks the rise of a new political committee, dubbed "super PACs," and officially known as "independent-expenditure only committees," which can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions and other groups, as well as wealthy individuals.7 The super PACs were made possible by two court rulings, including one earlier in 2010 by the Supreme Court, that lifted many spending and contribution limits. The groups can also mount the kind of direct attacks on candidates that were not allowed in the past.8 Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate directly with candidates or political parties and must disclose their donors.
NOTE: All political committees that register and file reports with the Federal Election Commission are 527 organizations, but not all 527s are federally registered political committees. For more information on 527 organizations, please visit the IRS web site.