Power Before Policy
In anticipation of 2024’s primary election for North Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District seat, the American Institute of Architect’s political action committee (PAC), known as ArchiPAC, gave $1,000 to GOP House member Virginia Foxx. The money, according to the AIA, was meant to support her advocacy on school safety and student debt. The AIA has long spoken up for student debt relief; in 2013 it drafted the National Design Services Act, which included loan assistance for students that work at community design centers in marginalized communities and was first introduced in Congress by House member Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) in 2014.
Despite the AIA’s contribution to her campaign, Foxx, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, doesn’t seem to see eye-to-eye with Perlmutter—or the AIA—on student debt. Just over a month after taking the AIA’s money, Foxx penned an op-ed in the Washington Times berating President Biden’s plan to cancel some student debt as an extravagant boondoggle. “These unaccountable bureaucrats and career politicians claim their reckless policies are inexpensive, yet independent auditors and nonpartisan experts all but accuse the Department of Education of cooking the books,” she wrote. In a floor speech, she assailed student-debt relief as “limousine liberalism,” claiming that “this entire scheme is nothing more than a transfer of wealth [to] those who willingly took on debt from those who did not or had the grit to pay off their loans.”
Considering the volume of dollars coming through the other side of the issue, it’s not surprising the AIA’s money didn’t sway her. Since 2006, Foxx has received $86,000 in donations from student loan companies. In fact, Foxx had already taken a position on student debt relief before the AIA’s donation. In February, she joined House and Senate GOP colleagues in cautioning the Biden administration against relief.
After the Supreme Court overturned the administration’s executive action to offer debt relief to 40 million Americans, the AIA decried the decision: “The Supreme Court’s ruling on student loan forgiveness in Biden v. Nebraska will create an inequitable financial burden for many of our members. It will likely make it even harder for those from economically challenged backgrounds to become architects and design professionals and may even force others to leave the profession for financial reasons.”
What, then, is the purpose of ArchiPAC and donations to legislators like Foxx? With a relatively small number of PAC dollars at its disposal, the AIA is attempting to squeeze its advocacy agenda through a political environment of increasing polarization. On the one hand, the organization promotes a public image of architects as champions of sustainability and artistic, enlightened technocrats. On the other, it has provided and continues to provide financial support to climate change deniers and January 6 sympathizers. The coarsening of civic discourse during the Trump years and their irrevocable aftermath seems to have widened the gulf between the AIA’s outward rhetoric and its Beltway rolodex. As a professional association, the AIA has a responsibility to weigh in on policy topics in its wheelhouse, like infrastructure and carbon emissions derived from buildings. In moments of crisis—like the 2020 uprisings against police violence and Whitney Young’s castigation that architects were apolitical bystanders during the height of the civil rights movement—the organization has acknowledged how the profession it represents impacts wider issues of political and economic equality and human rights. Its policy platform is a progressive wish list: housing as a human right, a rapid phase-out of carbon emissions from buildings, and inclusionary zoning. For the last decade-plus, the AIA’s donations indicate it thinks the two political parties are equal partners on the road toward those goals. Some members disagree—and want to see the AIA’s support for political candidates overhauled completely.
ARCHIPAC WAS FOUNDED forty years ago, and it draws campaign funds from earmarked donations from members, not member dues. Over the last several election cycles, it has donated to dozens of candidates, in amounts ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. Decisions about whom to donate to are made by a steering committee of up to eleven members appointed by the AIA president and confirmed by the AIA Board of Directors.
According to the AIA, ArchiPAC contributes to candidates in the House and Senate according to the efficacy of recipients, the impact a given contribution can make, and the candidate’s alignment with the AIA’s policy positions. Thus, the PAC tends to support House and Senate leadership, emerging leaders, and the chairs of relevant committees like Foxx, but it stays away from the most visible reactionary firebrands and progressive icons. And it prioritizes congressional races where its donation of a few thousand dollars will grant the AIA leverage. (For reference, the average cost to run for the Senate was $13.5 million in the 2022 cycle and $1.8 million for the House.)
One could be forgiven for thinking that only Democratic politicians would be willing to help the AIA achieve these policy goals, but ArchiPAC donations suggest otherwise. The PAC supports climate change deniers, candidates who voted against landmark infrastructure bills, and legislators who voted to not certify electors in the disputed 2020 election of Joe Biden.
As for political orientation, the AIA’s main policy priorities are divided, broadly, into three categories: the economy, climate, and housing. Under the banner of “A Future Economy,” the AIA advocates for tax and other policies to support small businesses, innovation, and talent recruitment, as well as more progressive policy goals like racial and ethnic diversity in business and a civil service design corps. It calls for climate action—greater energy efficiency in buildings, more renewable energy, robust federal investment in green infrastructure, and addressing the disproportionate impact of climate change faced by communities of color—to be “a top priority of national policy” and has committed to eliminating all building carbon emissions by 2040. (In February of 2019, the organization endorsed the GND, but this phrase does not appear in its policy platform.) In a plank titled “Healthy and Equitable Communities,” the AIA states outright that “shelter is a basic human right” and advocates for repealing the Faircloth Amendment, which limits the total amount of HUD-funded public housing to the number of units in existence in 1999. This category points toward a built environment that values public and individual health and equity and includes calls to house those who are experiencing homelessness and provide related support services, to develop multimodal-transit-oriented development, and to combat “discriminatory zoning and housing policies on communities, including Black, Indigenous, and other populations that have been historically marginalized with deleterious economic disinvestment.”
Given all of that, one could be forgiven for thinking that only Democratic politicians would be willing to help the AIA achieve these policy goals, but ArchiPAC donations suggest otherwise. The PAC supports climate change deniers, candidates who voted against landmark infrastructure bills, and legislators who voted to not certify electors in the disputed 2020 election of Joe Biden. Since the 2012 election cycle, donations have been staunchly bipartisan, resulting in a near 50/50 split. In the 2022 cycle, ArchiPAC gave $89,500 to Democrats and $68,500 to Republicans, for a total $158,000. In the 2020 cycle, ArchiPAC gave $125,000 to Democrats and $127,000 to Republicans, for a total of $252,000.
This bipartisan approach is not unique to the AIA. The American Council of Engineering Companies (which represents 6,000 firms, with 600,000 employees) does this, too, but with much higher dollar volumes. In the 2022 cycle, it gave $831,000 to Democrats and $859,000 to Republicans, for a total of $1.691 million.
When asked about ArchiPAC, the AIA declined to answer specific questions and instead issued a statement:
The American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) political action committee, ArchiPAC, is focused on advancing legislative priorities that strengthen our members’ efforts to create a safer, healthier, and more sustainable built environment, and by extension society. Donation decisions to candidates and lawmakers are made by a committee of AIA members and guided by those principles. ArchiPAC works with lawmakers who support the profession’s highest legislative priorities, including advancing sustainable and resilient design, tax policies that help our members thrive, and student debt relief, among others. ArchiPAC contributions are based on assessing the totality of a candidate’s positions on the issues relevant to the architecture profession. There will never be total alignment between the profession and the candidates who receive ArchiPAC contributions. But the committee members take great care to ensure that the profession supports candidates who are best positioned to champion the profession’s issues.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, Donna Sink, an AIA member for nearly twenty years, stood up at a meeting of the Indianapolis chapter to pledge support for ArchiPAC. “I want to put my money where my mouth is, and I am donating to ArchiPAC, and I encourage all of our members to do the same,” she told her colleagues. She stopped donating to ArchiPAC three years ago after growing disillusioned with the AIA’s approach to political donations and the candidates it supported. “We have a policy platform that says we believe in certain things, and by spreading the money around, we inevitably give it to people who not only don’t support, but actively work against, what our policy platform is,” says Sink. “We should be giving more money to people who really stand up for our policy platform points.” Some members, she says, have grown suspicious of ArchiPAC donations in instances where the AIA has failed to put its money where its mouth is. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, for example, the AIA acknowledged structural systemic injustices and the profession’s complicity in them, but it never altered its campaign donations in a way that would ameliorate said injustices. “Why are we piddling these little drips around that don’t push in any direction at all?” says Sink. “It’s useless.”
“I would argue that the amount of money they’re donating does not get them in the rooms of importance,” says Nick Robertson, an AIA member since 2011. “Why are we making symbolic donations to people who, for instance, deny the  election?” Robertson thinks the AIA’s commitment to its stated policy goals is authentic, though he says the consensus that effective professional association lobbying must play both sides is “fundamentally naive, particularly given the scale of the dollars we’re talking about.” A step forward, he says, would be “[trying] more to align with the goals of the mission than the goal of being seen as nonpartisan.”
Some building industry groups do give on a staunchly partisan basis. The Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) gives almost exclusively to Republicans. In 2022, ABC (which has only 22,000 members) gave $1.256 million to the GOP. In the case of the AIA, dollar-for-dollar bipartisan donations weren’t always how ArchiPAC worked. In the 1990s, the AIA consistently gave more money to Democrats. In 1994, for example, $59,000 went to Democrats and only $12,000 to Republicans. The year 2000 saw an apparent shift in strategy, as total contributions ramped up to $136,000, evenly split, up $100,000 total from the previous cycle.
The AIA does seem to be cognizant to some degree of growing political polarization. It instituted a pause in political donations in 2021, after the January 6 Capitol insurrection, but resumed them shortly thereafter with no briefing on how donation policies may have changed. Since then, ArchiPAC has donated to several House members who voted to object to the certification of 2020 election results, including Glenn Thompson (R-PA), Garret Graves (R-LA), Sam Graves (R-MO), Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Buddy Carter (R-GA), and Virginia Foxx.
IT’S AN ODD POSE for the AIA, an organization that stakes a claim to public relevance based on architects’ technical expertise on mitigating carbon emissions, to support candidates who are dismissive of climate change. From his perch on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis (which was disbanded by the GOP after it took back the House last year), Buddy Carter, who received $2,500 this year from the AIA, told the Savannah Morning News that climate change isn’t a crisis. Before receiving an ArchiPAC donation of $1,000 during the 2020 cycle, Devin Nunes (R-CA) told the New York Times that “global warming is nonsense” and claimed the environmentalist movement is a Russian conspiracy. House majority leader Steve Scalise—who during the 2020 cycle received $5,000 from the AIA through his PAC, the Scalise Leadership Fund—downplayed the searing heat wave experienced by the American South last July by telling Fox Business that “we had hot summers 150 years ago, when we didn’t have the combustion engine.” He also called the GND “economically catastrophic.” Notably, Scalise’s south Louisiana district is home to some of the nation’s first climate refugees.
Transforming the American economy with a GND would necessitate a massive wealth transfer from the fossil fuel industry to the building design and construction sector, and thus, it would seem like an obvious rallying point for the AIA to lead the way in climate resilience and simultaneously boost its members’ bottom line. (“Architects would be buying Ferraris,” says Sink.) But support for a GND doesn’t seem to be a cohesively organizing principle for ArchiPAC donations. In the 2022 cycle, only a quarter of donations to House campaigns went to candidates who had signed on to the GND. In the 2020 cycle, only a fifth of them did. There’s been no money for its most outspoken proponents like Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Ed Markey (D-MA), and the Democratic Socialist–aligned Squad in the House. But Democrats like Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who during their time in House leadership kept the GND at arm’s length and far from a vote on the floor, have picked up AIA contributions.
“It doesn’t make any sense to be promoting these statements about inclusivity and equity and yet giving money to people who are actively trying to deny the humanity of [certain groups]. How is the benefit outweighing the potential harm? What kind of seat at the table is being gained?”
The AIA does have an obligation to represent members with a wide spectrum of political beliefs. But serving power apolitically and dropping off donations to whoever is at the head of an influential committee or in a congressional leadership position comes at the explicit cost of the AIA’s policy priorities. “You can be nonpartisan and end up donating more to one side solely because you see the issues at hand and one side happens to be operating in service of your values,” says Robertson.
It can be hard for any professional organization to define where its narrowly tailored, industry-specific policy expertise ends and where the broader concerns of civic life and human rights begin. With architects’ charge to protect public health, for example, how broad is their mandate to weigh in on the rapid degradation of reproductive health care for women, including issues such as access to abortion, which encompasses both a specific type of medical infrastructure—a building—and a health care service? If shelter is a “basic human right,” is the AIA obligated to support Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) $1 trillion housing bill? The open nature of these questions “is why we do things like create a policy platform,” says Sink.
Sink and other architects interviewed for this article caution against assuming that architects are neatly congregated around any climate or progressive position, but rhetorically, the AIA has already made its choice. The AIA’s representatives didn’t want to talk about what kinds of deals it extracts from recalcitrant conservatives for this article, an omission that’s telling on its own. But with sidewalks doling out third-degree burns during the hottest year on record and summer wildfires blanketing parts of the country in a smoky and poisonous yellow haze, the incrementalism that comes with convincing GOP legislators to admit that climate change exists, while they add that it’s just not a big deal, seems quaint and perhaps self-defeating. The AIA can alienate part of its membership and invigorate its countervailing demographic with the reasonable conclusion that actually achieving its policy goals, widely believed to be required to sustain human civilization long term, will provide a massive windfall to architects. Or it can play both sides for a few thousand dollars a pop.
If the AIA continues down the latter road, Sink has a warning: “The AIA needs to be looking and listening to their younger members,” she says. “The younger members are the ones who do truly believe in these policy positions. If they see the AIA not fulfilling that platform, [and] actively donating against it, they’re going to leave the AIA and even the profession completely.”
This describes this trajectory of Lizzie MacWillie, a 41-year-old architect who became an AIA member in 2019 while living in Texas. Her first awareness of professional-association campaign contributions came through the Texas Society of Architects, when she discovered its campaign contribution arm was giving money to state legislators sponsoring antigay and antitrans bills, she says. After she moved to New York City in late 2022 and saw that campaign contribution advocacy at the local AIA branch and nationally didn’t align with her values either, she let her membership lapse. “It doesn’t make any sense to be promoting these statements about inclusivity and equity and yet giving money to people who are actively trying to deny the humanity of [certain groups]. How is the benefit outweighing the potential harm? What kind of seat at the table is being gained?” she says. MacWillie would like the AIA to support candidates who think “radically” about the future, “which I think is what architects are supposed to be doing.” For her, drawing a line between what’s good for humanity in general and what’s good for her profession is “impossible and a ridiculous ask.”
Zach Mortice worked at AIA National from 2007 to 2014, and every time he reaches out to his old friends there for one of these NYRA stories they never want to talk :(