Policy Pressures and Public Law

  • Elizabeth WheatEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_1039-1


Lead Contamination Political Candidate Party Committee Political Action Committee Black Teenager 
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Political action committee (PAC): A political committee registered with the Federal Election Commission for the purpose of electing a politician or helping advance a legislative agenda. PACs can be established and administered by corporations, unions, membership-based organizations, or trade associations.

Super political action committee (Super PAC): A PAC that emerged after the SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission (2010) Supreme Court decision. They can raise unlimited amounts of money and can spend it supporting or opposing a political candidate. They are prohibited from donating directly to a candidate.

Pressure group: Also known as an interest group. They share similar beliefs, goals, or political philosophies and seek to influence policymakers through lobbying, education, direct actions such as protesting, and political pressure.


In the American political system, each branch exerts pressure on the others with the purpose of balancing control and making sure no one branch becomes too powerful. An important piece of this political system is how the public applies pressure to achieve policies. This chapter will focus on how pressures are exerted to achieve public law changes. Specifically, it will look at pressure groups (also referred to as interest groups), political action committees (PACs), and Super PACs, and strategies to influence policy and law. Case studies from the Chicago Police Department and the Flint, Michigan, lead contamination crisis will be discussed.

Pressure (Interest) Groups

Also known as an interest group in the United States, pressure groups share similar beliefs, goals, or political philosophies and seek to influence policymakers through lobbying, education, direct actions such as protesting, and political pressure (Shoveller and Nathoo 2002). While some may focus their efforts on politics, interest groups are more likely to focus on narrow issues and on influencing public policies. They may also help getting policies of interest to their members on the political agenda by increasing issue salience and public awareness or by helping draft legislation (Trueman 2015a). This education can be used to put pressure on elected officials and ultimately influence policymaking (Trueman 2015b).

PACs and Super PACs

Beginning with the first PAC in 1944, the purpose of a PAC is to raise money for supporting the election or defeat of political candidates. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) limits PAC contributions to $5,000 per candidate committee in an election, $15,000/year to a national party committee, and $5,000/year to other PACs. Individual, PAC, or political party committees may donate a maximum of $5,000/year to a PAC. They are required to register with the FEC and provide an address, financial information, and their affiliated organizations which all count towards financial limits (Center for Responsive Politics 2016b). As political campaigns became increasingly expensive, wealthy donors challenged these financial limitations in court.

In 2010, the Supreme Court handed down a 5–4 landmark ruling, Citizens United v. FEC. The majority opinion argued the First Amendment protects independent spending by corporations and unions from government limitations. Corporations and unions were recognized as having free speech rights in the form of unlimited financial donations (Krieg 2012). Shortly after this decision, the Federal Court of Appeals decided SpeechNow.org v. FEC (2010), which held that for independent expenditure-only groups, limits could not be placed on their financial contributions (U.S. News 2016). The impact on the political system of these rulings is to allow for increases in contributions and the overall cost of campaigns. In 2015, the Michigan Senate proposed codifying Citizens United into state law and allowing state-based Super PACs to operate in a similar way as national Super PACs (Gray 2015). Wisconsin is also debating between codification and a ballot measure overturning Citizens United for the November 2016 election. Both proposals could change state campaign finance laws significantly (Bottari 2015; Reid 2015; p. 292 n.d.).

Following the court rulings, independent expenditure-only groups, known as SuperPACs, emerged (Krieg 2012). Campaign finance expert Richard Briffault stated, “The rise of super PACs suggests that the real impact of Citizens United may be the re-validation of the unlimited use of private wealth generally in elections, not just spending by corporations and unions” (Barnes 2012). Super PACs are prohibited from directly coordinating with a political candidate, but it is not uncommon for them to be run by former presidential aides or individuals with previous political party connections. In the 2012 election, former White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton headed Priorities USA, which spent over $18 million dollars to support President Obama’s reelection campaign. Mitt Romney’s former political director, Carl Forti, ran the board of Super PAC Restore Our Future, spending over $60 million to support the Republican candidate (Krieg 2012).

2,222 Super PACs reported total receipts of $547,465,624 and independent expenditures of $235,810,461 in the 2016 election cycle as of March 2016 (Center for Responsive Politics 2016a). In the presidential race, Super PACs have spent $64 million with 90 % from single-candidate groups (Blumenthal 2015). These numbers are expected to climb as the November 2016 election gets closer and the parties nominate their presidential candidate. Registered Super PACS must report donors to the FEC on either a monthly or semiannual basis in election off years and monthly during an election year but can choose which reporting frequency they prefer.

PACs and Super PACs are examples of how pressure can be applied through financial contributions on policymakers, thus influencing public law. The following case studies will look at a different type of policy pressure – mobilizing public opinion.

Chicago Police Department

Following controversial police actions in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and Chicago, confidence in law enforcement declined to its lowest rate of 52 % approval since Gallup started polling about them in 1993. From 2014 to 2015, Democrats reported the greatest decline of 13 points to 42 % confidence compared to the previous 2 years, while independents and Republicans reported no change, remaining at 51 % and 69 %, respectively. When looking at approval by race, black respondents reported 30 % in 2014–2015, down 6 % from the previous 2 years; Hispanic respondents reported 52 % approval, down from 60 %; white respondents reported 57 %, down 3 %; and self-identified nonwhite respondents indicated 42 % confidence, compared to 49 % previously (Jones 2015).

These responses suggest there is growing public concern over law enforcement actions. Citizen advocacy groups have called for changes in police techniques and emphasized the importance of good community relationships between police departments and the people they serve. At the same time, law enforcement organizations have continued lobbying politicians in Washington, D.C., spending $2.5 million in 2013 (Rucke 2014).

Chicago is an example of compelling political leaders to address alleged instances of police misconduct and of the public applying pressure with the hopes of enforcing existing conduct laws and seeking justice. Following a series of deadly police shootings of young black men, citizens and local leaders called on Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Police Department (CPD) for greater transparency and accountability. The 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black teenager, was particularly controversial because the city initially opposed the release of dash-cam video and only requested it be made public after a federal judge ordered the release of video from another shooting in 2013 involving an unarmed 17-year-old black teenager named Cedrick Chatman (Guarino 2016). Public protests calling for Mayor Emanuel’s resignation grew louder when discrepancies emerged over when he knew police accounts of the 2014 shooting differed from the dash-cam footage. Bishop Larry Trotter commented, “We are hurt, disappointed, and angry. The mayor has been friendly towards many ministers, but his administration has failed all Chicagoans.” A lawyer for the McDonald family stated, “I submit the graphic dash cam video will have a powerful impact on any jury and the Chicago community as a whole. This case will undoubtedly bring a microscope of national attention to the shooting itself as well as the city’s pattern, practice, and procedures in rubber-stamping fatal police shootings of African Americans as ‘justified’” (Guarino 2016). Chicago’s law department responded that the city is working to balance calls for public transparency with the need for confidentiality of police investigations (Roberts 2016).

Flint, Michigan

In the summer of 2015, Flint citizens discovered their tap water contained high lead levels (Delaney and Lewis 2016). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends localities take action if lead levels in water exceed 15 parts per billion (ppb) – Flint’s levels tested at or higher than this in nearly 400 homes. Over 90 homes had levels in excess of 100 ppb (Lin and Park 2016).

The lead crisis dates back to March 2013 when the Flint City Council, under the control of a governor-appointed emergency manager, voted 7–1 to stop purchasing water from Detroit and instead get water directly from Lake Huron, an effort expected to save Flint $19 million over 8 years (Egan 2015b). Detroit opted to stop selling Flint water earlier than this new plan could be implemented which led to Flint choosing to use water from the Flint River, one of the most degraded Saginaw River tributaries. Mayor Dayne Walling celebrated the choice on April 25, 2014, saying, “Water is an absolute vital service that most everyone takes for granted. It’s a historic moment for the city of Flint to return to its roots and use our own river as our drinking water supply” (Aker 2016).

An important characteristic of the Flint River is that its poor water quality corrodes lead-infused pipes and risks contaminating the public’s drinking water supply unless the pipes are treated prior to consumption. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) did not require this treatment be done to reduce the corrosion or leaching of lead from the city’s aging pipe system and MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said, “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax” (Delaney and Lewis 2016). The City of Flint failed to treat the pipes for corrosion and thousands of residents were then provided with dangerous lead-contaminated water (Egan 2015a).

Flint resident LeeAnne Walters noticed her four children becoming sick during this time, contacted her pediatrician who notified the city, and had her water tested in November 2014. The Walters’ family water tested at 397 ppb, well above the EPA action level of 15 ppb to avoid damage to the blood, brain, and kidneys. After the mayor failed to respond, Walters contacted the EPA and civil engineer Marc Edwards. Edwards’ testing of Flint water customers yielded shocking results and put even more pressure on the city and state political leaders to act. He remarked, “If a landlord with no training in public health doesn’t inform a tenant of a lead hazard, they can and have been sent to jail. That’s how seriously society takes this issue. So what should be the fate of someone paid to do a specific job of protecting the public from this neurotoxin and fail? If we’re going to throw a landlord in jail…how can you not hold these guys accountable” (Aker 2016).

The public outcry over the water quality and government response grew louder once elevated lead levels were discovered in the fall of 2015. Pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha found high lead levels in over 1,700 children and published her findings in the American Journal of Public Health, officially documenting findings of a spike in the blood levels of Flint children. She argued, “The poisoning of an entire population was entirely preventable” (Hanna-Attisha et al. 2016; Delaney and Lewis 2016; Aker 2016). Residents complained, marched to City Hall, called for the city to reconnect to the Detroit system, and over 26,000 signed a petition to end the Flint River supply (Wang 2015). Flint switched back to Detroit’s system on October 16, 2015 and announced plans to prepare the connection to Lake Huron. Governor Rick Snyder declared Flint to be in a state of emergency on January 5, 2016 and said, “I have a degree of responsibility” amid questions over when exactly he knew about the severity of the lead contamination (Aker 2016). A week later, the National Guard was called in by a state executive order to help distribute emergency water supplies (Schneider and Eggert 2016).

A class-action federal lawsuit against Governor Snyder, the city of Flint, and 13 public officials was filed in November 2015, alleging families were “deliberately deprived of their 14th Amendment rights” when Flint chose cheaper toxic water. The complaint states, “For more than 18 months, state and local government officials ignored irrefutable evidence that the water pumped from the Flint River exposed [residents] to extreme toxicity. The deliberately false denials about the safety of the Flint River water was as deadly as it was arrogant” (Wang 2015).

Governor Snyder requested $200 million in aid from the state and Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) sponsored a bill requesting federal funding for Flint and cities in similar situations to upgrade their pipes. If passed, this bill will “provide $100 million in ‘drinking water state revolving funds’ available to any state with a drinking water emergency; provide $70 million to back water infrastructure loans; and provide $50 million to prevent and address lead poisoning” (Helsel 2016). Public frustration over how the city and state government handled the process led to Flint’s emergency manager resigning and the Department of Justice launching an investigation into Governor Snyder’s office beginning January 2016 (Rappleye et al. 2016). Concern over lead levels and its harmful effects have not stopped at the Flint city boundaries. The crisis has ignited action throughout Michigan and nationally, as citizens call for threats to their water supply to be investigated and contamination problems resolved (Wines and Schwartz 2016).

The Flint crisis is an example of citizens mobilizing to enforce public law and pressure policymakers. The Midwest program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council feels the crisis may also lead the public to reconsider the value of water, “We see safe and sufficient water as a human right,” he said. “It needs to be approached as a public service matter, not a private commercial commodity… It doesn’t just come out of the wall” (Wines and Schwartz 2016). If not for the actions of local pediatricians, engineers, and concerned parents, harms from the lead contamination would likely have continued and done more damage. Due to public mobilization and pressure, residents of Flint should receive clean water and resources to address health effects from the contamination.


Public pressure can change an existing policy, clarify existing ones such as police protocol with civilian shootings, create a new policy, or enforce existing laws as observed in Flint. The American political system provides an abundance of opportunities for the public to get involved in making policy and changing laws. This chapter highlights a few opportunities, but every citizen can seek out ways to become involved in their own community.



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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Public and Environmental Affairs (Political Science)University of Wisconsin-Green BayGreen BayUSA