Rookies and Vets Add House PACs

Posted July 18, 2008 at 5:56pm

On the Congressional power scale, it’s difficult to find two House Democrats further apart than John Dingell (Mich.) and Heath Shuler (N.C.).

But on back-to-back nights this week, Dingell, the longest-serving Member of the chamber and chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, and Shuler, the backbench freshman, are holding kickoff events for their leadership political action committees.

The pair of lawmakers are the latest among dozens of House Democrats in recent years to set up the freewheeling funds designed to help lawmakers spread extra campaign cash to colleagues. Since 2005, 56 House Democrats, or about a quarter of the Caucus, have established the accounts, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The development tracks Democrats’ rise to power in the chamber and the moves they are making to ensure they stay there.

For most of the past decade, Republicans dominated the fundraising tool, which relies heavily on Beltway largess. As GOPers solidified their grip on K Street cash, they used leadership PACs to collect extra money from downtown sources that had already maxed out to their campaign accounts.

Since Democrats came in view of, and then seized, the majority, they have outpaced Republicans in setting up new accounts. Today, the parties are nearly at parity, with Democrats maintaining 107 funds and Republicans claiming 114, according to CRP’s analysis.

Nevertheless, Democrats are still trailing GOPers in banking cash for what amounts to a collective shadow fund for waging political war. House Republicans are stashing about $5.8 million in their leadership PACs, while House Democrats are holding about $4.9 million, according to a Roll Call analysis.

“The amount of money that’s raised has gotten pretty outrageous,” said Marian Currinder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, whose forthcoming book, “Money in the House,” examines the rise of Member-to-Member giving in the chamber. She said that while fundraising professionals thought the accounts would lose their appeal as they began spreading to rank-and-file Members a decade ago, they have instead vacuumed up ever greater sums of campaign cash as fundraising pressures have increased.

Campaign finance reform advocates say the accounts amount to an end-around election law. In most cases, an individual can give a maximum $4,600 to a House Member’s re-election account in a two-year cycle, but that amount can more than triple by contributing $10,000 to that lawmaker’s leadership PAC in the same period. And while candidates can’t tap their campaign funds to cover personal expenses, ethics lawyers say no such restrictions exist for leadership PACs — a loophole that some say allows lawmakers to use the accounts as a slush fund.

“You could well ask why they exist at all. I don’t see a justification,” said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute. “I don’t see the public policy reason to allow Members to get contributions in two different pots. And it’s hard to understand why you should allow Members to control a pile of money that’s not governed by the rules that apply to Members’ office accounts or campaign committees.”

Lawmakers have made fitful efforts to rein in the accounts in recent years. Two years ago, then-Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), former chairman of the House ethics committee, introduced a measure to ban the PACs, but it attracted no co-sponsors, and nothing similar has been introduced since. The House last year passed a bill that would ban Members from putting their spouses on their campaign or leadership PAC payrolls, but it has stalled in the Senate.

Lawmakers have mustered one reform. As part of last year’s lobbying overhaul package, they amended campaign finance law to require that Members establishing the accounts identify themselves in the organizing papers. Previously, lawmakers did not have to publicly declare their association with their own leadership PACs, and watchdog groups relied on sleuth work to figure out who lay behind each fund.

Democratic lobbyists note that the accounts allow corporations to steer more money to Democratic candidates challenging incumbent Republicans. “Corporate PACs are incumbent-oriented,” one lobbyist said, meaning that companies will frequently avoid giving to challengers for fear of angering incumbents. But squeamish corporate PACs have no problem giving to established Democratic lawmakers’ leadership PACs, which in turn can pass those contributions out to challengers.

The three Democrats who beat the odds to win in the most recent special elections, for example, had mixed success raising money from major corporate sources. But they all got crucial boosts from Democratic leadership PACs, Federal Election Commission records show. Rep. Bill Foster (Ill.) collected $109,500 from the accounts, Rep. Don Cazayoux (La.) pulled in $125,000, and Rep. Travis Childers (Miss.) got $142,500.

Dingell, a 53-year House veteran, is asking his supporters to help him launch his first leadership PAC, called WOLVERINE PAC, by attending a reception Tuesday at the UPS townhouse on Capitol Hill. Donors can attend as a guest by cutting a $1,000 check, as a sponsor for $2,500 or as a host for $5,000.

Michael Robbins, Dingell’s chief of staff, said the Michigan Democrat set up the fund to help keep his party in the majority.

“Being in the majority as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee has been very enjoyable for the Congressman, and he appreciates all the hard work his colleagues have done to keep us here,” Robbins said. “He’s been working hard on that, too, raising money for the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee], and he wanted to go to the next level and open a leadership PAC.”

Dingell is the fifth committee chairman to establish one this Congress, after Reps. Collin Peterson (Minn.) of Agriculture, Bob Filner (Calif.) of Veterans’ Affairs, Silvestre Reyes (Texas) of Intelligence and James Oberstar (Minn.) of Transportation and Infrastructure.

But as Shuler’s fund demonstrates, leadership PACs are hardly exclusive to actual leaders and committee chairmen. The night after Dingell’s event, Shuler’s supporters will file into a Capitol Hill townhouse for a reception benefiting the former Washington Redskins quarterback’s new leadership PAC, the 3rd and Long PAC. Hosts will contribute $5,000, and guests are giving $2,500.

Shuler is one of several first- and second-term Democratic lawmakers who have formed the accounts in this Congress, including Reps. Melissa Bean (Ill.), Bruce Braley (Iowa) and Gwen Moore (Wis.). Andrew Whalen, a Shuler spokesman, said the lawmaker formed the PAC to help elect like-minded, fiscally conservative Democrats.

Shuler represents a Republican-heavy district and has been listed as a member of the DCCC’s “Frontline” program, suggesting the party views him as potentially vulnerable. But without a credible Republican opponent, he faces an apparently clear path to re-election.