Originally published in The Intercept on October 14, 2018. Co-authored with Ryan Grim.
In April, the Congressional Progressive Caucus announced that it was going to be drawing a line: Its political action committee would no longer accept corporate campaign donations.
“If we are going to end the influence of corporations and special interests in government, we have to start by not relying on their support,” said caucus co-chair Mark Pocan, D-Wis. “Only by being fully independent of their financial influence can we prioritize people over corporations.”
The development was largely ignored by the press, but for those who heard about it, the move raised an immediate question: Wait, the Congressional Progressive Caucus was taking corporate money?
Yes, it was. And not only did the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC accept corporate contributions until recently, but also, almost all of its 78 members — including Pocan — still take corporate money individually, even as their caucus shuns it. Just four caucus members who will be returning to the House next session have pledged to decline corporate funds: Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; Ro Khanna, D-Calif.; Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; and David Cicilline, D-R.I.
That number, however, is about to balloon to as many as 40 or more, as a wave of successful progressive insurgents — including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jahana Hayes, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar — are poised to join the House of Representatives.
The new push to go cold turkey on corporate cash is creating tension within the caucus, as progressive members take offense at the implication that their votes might be influenced by big money. “People feel like you’re saying that they are bought and sold — and some are, but many aren’t,” Jayapal told The Intercept. “It’s not like everybody who takes corporate PAC money is bad or only does what the corporations want. … But that’s not what this is about. It’s about re-establishing trust with voters, changing the system, working from multiple angles.”
But while the voting records of Congressional Progressive Caucus members are better on democracy reform issues compared with those outside the caucus, that might be setting the bar too low. Aaron Scherb, the legislative affairs director for the watchdog group Common Cause, told The Intercept that 17 of the 28 members of Congress who earned perfect scores on his organization’s “Democracy Scorecard“ are in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But there are 78 representatives in the caucus, meaning that nearly 4 in 5 caucus members actually failed to earn a perfect score.
“So,” Jayapal explained, “I try to say to people, ‘Look, this is the system that we’ve had, it just doesn’t need to be the system that we always have. So it’s not bad that you’re doing it, because that is what has been the case.’ [I] try to not make it about shaming and blaming, but about, ‘Okay, we’re trying to fix this.’”
While Jayapal is trying to coax her colleagues with carrots, the ballot box is acting as a stick. In September, Rep. Michael Capuano, a longtime progressive from Massachusetts, was bested in a primary contest by his opponent, Ayanna Pressley, who made Capuano’s acceptance of corporate money a key campaign issue.
An analysis by The Intercept of the 2017-18 campaign cycle reveals that the vast majority of CPC members are similarly vulnerable, taking not just money from union and advocacy group PACs, but significant sums of corporate PAC cash as well. Not coincidentally, given the reliance on big money, hardly any members of the CPC rely on small individual donors.
Capuano hadn’t faced a serious political challenger since he was first elected in 1998, and he’s long been considered one of the most progressive members of the House. Though Pressley, a Boston city councilor, ran her campaign as a progressive insurgent, beyond her disagreement with Capuano over whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ought to be abolished or reformed, there were not many areas where she could distinguish herself from him on a policy level. But her pledge to swear off corporate PAC money, coupled with Capuano’s refusal to do so, created enough daylight between them to run through.
On the campaign trail, Capuano suddenly found himself in an unfamiliar position. He’d never had to seriously defend his fundraising haul before. His voting record, he insisted, spoke for itself. But Pressley highlighted the infusion of corporate funds flowing into Capuano’s coffers, especially from industries like biotech. In the latest two-year cycle, Capuano raised $388,000 from corporate PACs.
Capuano’s Congressional Progressive Caucus colleagues back in Washington, D.C., watched him go down, knowing that they, too, share his appetite for corporate money — and, potentially, his fate.
The movement to get money out of politics has fueled a massive, rapid, and poorly understood sea change — one that’s come to a head in the 2018 cycle. According to End Citizens United, a campaign finance reform political action committee, 208 candidates took the “no corporate PACs” pledge this cycle. Of those candidates, 124 won their primaries, including big names like Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat challenging Ted Cruz’s Senate seat, and Ocasio-Cortez, the insurgent candidate from New York City who ousted Joe Crowley, one of the top Democrats in Congress. (End Citizens United endorsed Crowley in the primary, despite his long record of taking corporate contributions, not expecting him to face a real challenge.)
Polls showed that Conor Lamb’s vocal opposition to corporate PAC money helped him eke out a victory in a district that Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016. And in a Pennsylvania district to Lamb’s east, Jess King has made her refusal to take corporate PAC money, and the GOP incumbent’s reliance on it, a defining feature of her campaign, helping her bring her opponent’s lead down to the single digits in a district that Trump carried by 26 points. The defining line in Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign zeroed in on that distinction: “We’ve got people, they’ve got money.”
Meanwhile, all 78 candidates endorsed by the Justice Democrats — a progressive political action committee, 26 of whose endorsees are still in the running — have sworn off corporate PAC and corporate lobbyist money. And already, presidential hopefuls like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand have responded to the growing hunger for campaign finance reform by announcing that they’ll no longer take corporate PAC contributions — an easier decision for them since corporate PACs aren’t likely to weigh in on presidential primaries anyway.
Polling has repeatedly shown that a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents view the influence of big money in politics as among the biggest threats to democracy. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has pledgedthat tackling corruption will be job No. 1 if Democrats retake the House and she becomes speaker.
But while elected officials — especially self-identified progressive ones — recognize the need to publicly back efforts to get money out of politics, incumbents will privately complain among themselves about the growing pressure to turn away long-standing donors, and big donors at that.
“Some of the most progressive members of the CPC will say their corporate contributions have never affected their votes, but they need to take trade association dollars or corporate PAC money because they represent poor districts that they don’t think has a donor base to make up for it,” said one Democratic House strategist.
“I’ve heard this particularly with folks of color,” said Jayapal, “that they have very minimal sources to get money from, and they traditionally haven’t been part of the overall [fundraising] system. But I think the beauty of getting corporate money out of politics is, it actually opens it up to everybody. In many ways, it’s a democratizing factor for traditionally marginalized communities.” Jayapal acknowledges that she thinks “it can take time to transition into that.”
This year’s primary upsets are beginning to change the political calculus, but longtime incumbents haven’t typically felt pressure to reject corporate PAC money. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., came to Congress as an insurgent herself, beating a nine-term Democratic incumbent in 1992. Now, she says, she would “love to get to the point” where she doesn’t have to accept corporate money, but her energies have been largely focused on Puerto Rico. “Since I didn’t have a primary,” she added, “I am not paying attention to that.”
Without electoral pressure, incumbents like Velázquez have had little incentive to spend the energy to create a small-dollar fundraising base, or even one that can subsist on big money from individuals without corporate PACs. Privately, members of Congress also argue that it is unrealistic to expect all of them to be able to attract the kind of small-dollar support for which Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and O’Rourke are famous.
“The way I would put it is, there’s a consensus that candidates ought to be raising their money from small donors, but it’s also the case that only a subset of candidates really click with small donors,” said Mark Schmitt, a former congressional aide and current political reform director at New America. “There’s only one Beto, and he gets attacked because his money pours in from out of state. There’s just some candidates who that’s never going to happen for, and they could be perfectly good progressive candidates, but not the attractive, charismatic type that might fuel small-dollar backing.”
And even O’Rourke has acknowledged that some degree of his ability to raise money relies on the intense disdain for his opponent, Cruz — a dynamic that also benefited Randy Bryce in his race against Paul Ryan. When Ryan retired, Bryce’s fundraising dropped significantly.
Some candidates who don’t share the superstar appeal of Sanders or O’Rourke argue that rejecting corporate cash could be tantamount to unilateral disarmament against Republicans in the general. “You would not want corporate PAC money used to destroy you in a general election, so it’s really going to depend on the landscape of each district,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., when asked if he would pledge not to take corporate PAC money.
Nasim Thompson, the communications director for Justice Democrats, has little patience for these types of excuses. “Those small-dollar donations are a reflection of grassroots support on the ground. And it’s not easy work, it’s very hard work, but it’s what we should expect of our electeds,” said Thompson. She adds that it’s the candidates who are not doing that hard work that are “compromising the entire system.”
Jayapal put it like this: “You don’t have to be an organizer; you don’t have to go out and make inspiring speeches. You just have to be authentic and show that you really care about the people that you represent and ordinary people, and that you want to take on the system of corruption in politics, and I think anybody can do that,” she said. “It is inspiring just to take the step.”
Although corporate PAC contributions have been the focus of the national political conversation, corporate PAC money, it turns out, amounts to a relative drop in the bucket of the large-dollar donations sloshing around American politics. “I sometimes ask people, ‘Well, how much do you get?’ And often, it’s a fairly small number,” said Jayapal.
In 2016, for example, just 6 percent of the $6.5 billion spent on the presidential election came from corporate PACs — two-thirds of which went to Republicans. The vast majority of money flowing into elections comes from wealthy individual donors. Even Congressional Progressive Caucus members who have sworn off corporate PAC money, like Khanna and Jared Polis (who is currently running for Colorado governor), rely predominantly on individual donations from the rich. Gabbard, too, has a broad national base of donors, and gets a boost from wealthy American Hindus eager to support the first Hindu in office. Tlaib and Abdul El Sayed, both of whom took the pledge, similarly benefited from high-dollar donations from Muslim communities nationwide.
Corporate PACs are more likely to support incumbents than primary challengers, which is good news for insurgents, who can run on the politically popular message of opposing corporate PAC money while also recognizing that they were unlikely to be beneficiaries of those dollars to begin with.
Still, advocates for campaign finance reform say the level of upfront, personal sacrifice isn’t really the point, because candidates who pledge to take no money from corporate PACs are communicating a greater level of commitment to reform than their opponents. Pledges also make it harder for them to walk back their commitments later on, when, as incumbents, they’re more likely to feel pressure to draw a greater share of their funding from corporate PACs. Pressley, who fundraised from corporate PACs while she was a member of the Boston City Council, pledged in Septemberto continue refusing corporate PAC money into the general election, and also once she’s in Congress.
“There’s no such thing as a pristine or incorruptible human being going into Congress, so part of our role is to continue that accountability for all members, including for Justice Democrats themselves,” said Thompson. “We need to make sure that drift doesn’t happen, and Justice Democrats aren’t immune to those pressures.”
Adam Bozzi, communications director for End Citizens United, predicts that “20 or 30 or 40” candidates who reject corporate PAC money will win their House races this November, and that “a couple more senators” will soon join the seven who have already done so. (Those senators are Warren, D-Mass.; Sanders, I-Vt.; Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Harris, D-Calif.; Booker, D-N.J.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.) These candidates “are not going to be bullied around” in Congress, Bozzi said. “That, plus the presidential primary, will lead to candidates pushing each other on these issues,” he added.
The hope is that the growing pressure will force the Michael Capuanos of the future to see that rejecting corporate PAC money is not only the most ethical choice, but the most politically attractive one as well.
“Corporate PAC money is a significant amount of money, but it’s not insurmountable,” said Bozzi. So-called “Red to Blue” Democrats who won in Republican-controlled districts last cycle, according to Bozzi, received an average of $16,000 each from corporate PACs. Democratic incumbents in competitive races last cycle received about 11 percent of their funding from corporate PACs, while the average for Democrats overall was closer to 19 percent.
Schmitt hopes that the focus on corporate PAC money will kickstart a more serious conversation about public financing — a consequential reform which can be accomplished without overturning Citizens United. This past May, House and Senate Democratic leaders unveiled their “Better Deal for Democracy” package, which includes a plan whereby candidates would receive a 6-to-1 match in public funds for every dollar raised from small donors. The reform proposals were spearheaded by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., who has sworn off corporate PAC money for the past seven years. Sarbanes’s package has received the backing not only of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but also more moderate Democrats like Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
“If you’ve been in politics for more than five minutes, you get tangled up in the money — everyone knows that,” Sarbanes told The Intercept. “The real question is: What are we going to do about it? If we get back the gavel in November, we will want to move quickly on this reform agenda.”
Republicans, for their part, are not that concerned. Rep. Tom Cole, a member of House Republican leadership from Oklahoma, told The Intercept that it’s a “fantasy” to think that voters care much about corporate PAC money. “As long as it’s legal, and you’re not getting hauled in front of the FEC [Federal Election Commission] for violating the law, I’ve found very few vote on that basis,” he said. “It’s not like they give you television time for free, you know, or let you mail your mailers out for free. So, I’m sorry, it just takes money to communicate. That’s nobody’s fault. That’s just the way the system is. So, taking money out just means you’re not going to win. If people want to make that a virtue, that’s fine, but usually the person that has the most resources wins about nine times out of 10.”
Any voter who does make it a litmus test, he added, was never going to vote for him in the first place.