Another way to be active in campaigns is to give money. During the 2012 elections, there was lots of news about Super PACs and the unlimited millions they could spend to get candidates elected. However, there are rules about what individuals can spend in individual elections at the federal and state levels. If donating to a political campaign is going to be part of your citizen lobbyist strategy, you need to know the rules—and where to get the latest updates—because this is an area of law that is experiencing a lot of change.
Federal Campaigns. When donating to federal campaigns themselves, the regulations come from the Federal Election Commission (FEC). According to its website, the FEC administers the Federal Election Campaign Act and defends federal campaign law in court. The agency’s website contains relevant federal law, regulations, and court decisions. This is where you will find the limits on how much an individual can contribute to each federal campaign and to a political party, and other regulations having to do with limits on donations.
Federal Political Action Committees (PACs). After the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, three kinds of PACs existed to support federal campaigns. The first is called a “connected PAC,: which is usually established by an organization, business, labor union, or trade group to raise money from a specific group of members or the managers or shareholders of a company. Connected PACs are the most common and are restricted by whom they can receive money from. The second kind of PAC is “unconnected,” and these are formed by groups with an ideological purpose, single-issue groups, and political leaders. These unconnected PACs may receive funds from any person, a connected PAC, and corporations. The third and newest type of PAC is the “super PAC.” Created in the wake of the Citizens United decision these are considered “independent-expenditure” PACs. They cannot donate money directly to political campaigns or political parties and may not work with the campaigns or parties on strategy. However, there are no limits on how much money super PACs can raise and spend. It was estimated that during the 2012 elections, super PACs spent more than $546 million.
State Campaign Fund-raising Regulations. Just as there are federal regulations about who can donate and how much can be donated to a campaign or political party, every state has its own and different set of laws and regulations—these are set by the state legislatures and run by the secretary of state or the state board of elections (it varies by state). The FEC, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the Campaign Finance Institute track state legislation on campaign finance. Among these resources, a citizen lobbyist will be able to find out how much a person can donate to a candidate and a political party—and whether there are any other disclosure requirements. Most of the burden is on the candidates to be open about whom their donors are. So keep in mind that campaign donations are public record with few exceptions. Each state will also regulate local and state PACs. It should be noted that state and local PACs cannot donate to federal campaigns—only PACs registered with the FEC can donate money to federal campaigns and parties. Finally, in June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court extended the Citizens United decision allowing unlimited independent political spending into states. The decision overruled Montana’s and other states’ laws restricting third-party independent political spending.