Political Giving Means Getting More than You Give

Money and Politics…Now that's a familiar coupling, which has been, currently is, and will likely be (at least for the foreseeable future) associated with “corruption and foul play”. While this may be justified on occasion, it is important to note that it is only justified for a very small handful of unscrupulous players. The truth is political giving is not only legitimate and lawful, it is essential to any successful advocacy effort. That is why every major business, industry and even health care profession must participate in political giving, including psychology. Contributing to a Member of Congress, especially through a Political Action Committee, is a powerful, efficient and effective part of our political process.

Why Do We Need to Be Involved?

As we all learned in high school Civics class, the government's role is to serve the people. In a country of over 280 million, however, responding to the needs of every individual, while an honorable mission, is truly an unrealistic hope. Instead, over the years, politicians have come to rely more and more on the efforts of lobbyists who advocate on behalf of a group of people who have been brought together under an umbrella of shared characteristics and concerns.

In any given legislative year as many as 10,000 bills are introduced in the U.S. Congress. Although only a very small percentage (approximately 6%) actually becomes law, these laws govern every aspect of our lives, from communication to recreation, from transportation to education. Laws governing such issues as telecommunications, designation of national parks, gasoline taxes, professional licenses, educational requirements and loans and scholarships, are among the hundreds of decisions that our legislators make on our behalf everyday.

So, how do the lawmakers decide what we want or what is best for their district or state? They depend on their constituents to let them know how (proposed) federal policy affects their local community. Knowing and being responsive to the needs and concerns of the voters is, in fact, their top priority; it is what got them elected and will help get them re-elected. In some instances, however, legislators making policy decisions are not fully experienced in certain areas. The complexities of graduate psychology training programs are a challenge to understand for the majority of elected public officials. Legislators, therefore, rely heavily on the expressed views of their constituents and information provided by experts – such as YOU.

What's the Best Way to Speak Out?

Speaking directly with a Member of Congress is the most effective means of gaining his or her support, but it is often difficult and impractical to do so. Further, one single message may not make much of an impact; however, the same message delivered by many voices will. In fact, the greatest influence and impact is gained when large numbers of constituents speak with “one voice.” We can actually have a greater impact in working together than all of us working separately. However, as greater and greater numbers of interest groups compete for a finite amount of resources and governmental attention, they must look for ways to distinguish themselves from the pack. The best way to do so is by supporting the Member's election campaign (e.g., working on his or her campaign, speaking at town hall meetings, attending campaign receptions).

Since most of us do not have time to volunteer on a campaign, a convenient and legitimate shortcut is to show support through political giving, with the greatest impact gained by joining with other individuals or colleagues in contributing to a Political Action Committee (PAC). Money bundled or pooled together through a PAC, not only provides support for a specific Member of Congress, it gives you an opportunity to speak directly to him or her about legislation impacting you and/or psychology. Furthermore, PAC contributions can be used in variety of ways, which is important. Campaigning is expensive; covering the costs of radio/TV advertising, direct mailings, phone bills, travel and more is substantial.

What Exactly Are PACs and Why Do They Matter?

Without going into too much detail, Political Action Committees were set up as part of the reform legislation passed after the Watergate scandal. PACs manage and oversee segregated funds (i.e., funds used to support political campaigns, which are closely monitored and regulated by the Federal Election Commission). What a PAC does is pool together campaign contributions to give to candidates on a federal, local, or state level. PACs also represent a specific interest (e.g., doctors, nurses, and psychologists), voice support for specific legislation, and monitor the actions of elected officials all year round. In short, unlike personal contributions, PACs show candidates clearly where a whole group of individuals/constituents stand on an issue. Just as importantly, because they closely follow voting records and political backgrounds, PACs make well informed decisions regarding which candidates, if supported, would be most sympathetic to a given professional or business interest.

Does Psychology Have a PAC?

Yes, psychology does have a PAC – Psychologists for Legislative Action Now (PLAN), administered by the Association for the Advancement of Psychology (AAP). Because the American Psychological Association (APA) is a tax exempt 501(c)(3) charitable organization, APA is expressly prohibited from participating in political campaign activity on behalf of its members. This restriction put psychology at a significant disadvantage to other health professions and disciplines. Therefore, in 1974 the AAP/PLAN was created and primarily supported legislative issues of concern to practicing psychologists. A growing interest in gaining federal support for psychology education and training resulted in the establishment of the Education-Pubic Policy Office in early 1990s, and a short time later the AAP/PLAN began to direct contributions designated for “education legislative agenda” to legislators supporting psychology's education agenda.

What is The Education Advocacy Trust?

Like the APA Practice Organization staff experienced for many years, the APA Education Advocacy staff has also struggled with lobbying restrictions that have prevented the implementation of a full advocacy strategy – lobbying, grassroots, and fundraising . Consequently, in June 2005 a new 501(c)(6) organization – the Education Advocacy Trust (EdAT) – was established to help the education advocacy staff overcome these barriers. Now, under the auspices of the EdAT, a designated portion of staff time and resources can be directed toward advocacy activities that cannot be conducted by APA because of its 501(c)(3) tax status. It is important to note, however, that the EdAT is not a political action committee. Like the Practice Organization, Education will continue to use AAP/PLAN to support federal candidates sympathetic to the concerns and issues of interest to the psychology education and training community, such as increased funding for the Graduate Psychology Education Program (GPE).

Conclusion

Political Action Committees (PACs) are an important aspect of American politics and the American electoral system . In fact, PACs were established by Congress as a means for corporations, trade unions and non-profits to make donations to candidates for Federal office - something that they cannot do directly . 

So, why are we still a little wary of getting fully involved in politics in general and PACs specifically? Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia , believes that PACs are seen as negative influences because of all the media hype during election years. However, he does not believe them to be as pernicious as journalists would make them out to be and notes that special interest money has always found its way into the political arena. Instead, Sabato points out that the legislation of the 1970s has not only spurred the growth of PACs, it has also made special interest money more transparent than it was before reporting requirements were instituted. Sabato notes that PACs have a legitimate and important role to play in the American political process.

There is no question that anyone wishing to become (or remain) a candidate for national office must have access to large sums of money; without funding it is likely that he/she will not succeed (i.e., get (re)elected). Bottom line is, much as we would all wish it otherwise, campaigns are expensive. Mostly because of the ever-increasing cost of television advertising, it is estimated that winning a House seat will cost over $1 million. The projected cost for winning a Senate seat is about $10 million. Clearly, individuals or groups of individuals, wishing to (re) elect a candidate who is in support of and championing their interests, must help that candidate through political giving.

What does this all mean for the psychology education and training community? It means we are no different from other health professions and disciplines. We can no longer afford to sit idly by; we must get involved. We need to be active supporters of psychology grassroots activities. Most importantly, we need to remember that voluntary contributions to EdAT and its affiliated political action committee, AAP/PLAN, are critical components to a comprehensive advocacy strategy – one that will help support psychology education champions on Capitol Hill.