WaPo Crunches Leadership PAC Numbers

The Washington Post shines a light on an increasingly important fixture in Washington’s money and politics scene, the leadership PAC.

As the piece explains, these PACS were originally created by lawmakers who wanted to be elected to leadership positions on the Hill, and thought it would be helpful if they could hand out cash to their colleagues who do the voting—theoretically to help with their own re-election campaigns. But they’ve moved on from there, providing, as one critic tells the Post, a way “to fund your personal lifestyle, so you don’t really have to pay for anything yourself.”

These accounts don’t get much scrutiny, and they aren’t governed by the usual FEC rules. But, as the Post is good to point out, they’ve hit the big-time. Today 405 lawmakers have leadership PACs, with revenues totaling $46 million in the 2008 election cycle, and more than half the funds come from other PACs, with their own goals on the Hill.

With the help of the Center for Responsive Politics, the Post digs into these numbers, and finds that most leadership PACs “have given away less than 40 percent of their expenditures this cycle, even though they typically say they are collecting and bundling donations for others.”

The lede example is John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House, who “collected more than $1.4 million from business interests this election cycle for a committee he says he created to help fellow Republican lawmakers.” Turns out, only about a third of that is actually money that’s helping other candidates.

About two-thirds of its expenditures have gone instead to costs the committee describes as necessary to raise money, including fine meals and trips to luxurious resorts where the congressman mingles with corporate-directed groups and lobbyists. Boehner (Ohio) has spent more than $182,000 through the committee on frequent travel with donors to Florida and similar vacation spots, according to Federal Election Commission records, including $70,403 at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples and more than $30,000 at Disney Resort Destinations.

Ahh, the cost of doing business these days.

There’s another nice example, from Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), whose spokesman defended the $2,094 he spent on ski lift tickets “because the event raised 10 times more than it cost.”

The Post could do a bit better at explaining the state of election law when it comes to these creatures.

Last year, the six-member FEC unanimously questioned the unbridled use of such funds. Lawmakers are generally barred from converting campaign donations to personal use, but leadership PAC receipts effectively have no such prohibition.

The piece goes on to say that the FEC “recommended including such PACs in the prohibition on personal use of campaign funds,” but rightly points out that Congress may not be eager to act, “with all 23 House and Senate party leaders tapping into such funds.” So far, Congress has just declared the use of corporate jets off limits for leadership PACs.

Well done to the Post for looking at the numbers, and pointing out the lax rules that govern these accounts.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.