I’m in my second term in the U.S. House of Representatives. I’m a Republocrat. I like the job. It pays $174,000, has great medical benefits, provides a really nice private gym to use, and lots of people have to be nice to me. And there are those $110,000 in taxpayer-funded fringe benefits I get (including plush retirement plans, paid time off, and contributions to Social Security and Medicare taxes). I’ve got a staff to answer the phone and email, run my Twitter and Facebook stuff, and deal with those damned constituents. And I’m in a relatively safe district, thanks to that Republocrat-friendly redistricting bill passed in my state last year. Hey, sometimes people let me use their corporate jets! (Well, as long as I keep quiet about those trips and pay commercial airfare for it.)
Yeah. This is a sweet gig. I want to stay here. In fact, I want to … move up. Be in the leadership. Be a mover and shaker. Now how am I gonna do that beyond kissing the speaker’s ass (and those of his damn deputies, too) and voting however he (or she) tells me to?
It will take money for that Republocrat to ascend higher in the House’s toadying ladder of leadership. Lots of money. And as we know, House members (and senators) have a vehicle to collect and dispense money to other House members — the leadership political action committee. A principal reason for the existence of leadership PACs to is buy friends and influence on Capitol Hill. Apparently, hard work and intelligence are insufficient.
For example, suppose our young Republocrat wants to donate money to another incumbent (or challenger identified by the National Republocratic Party as worthy of being admitted to the club) or to the national party itself. As a private citizen, she can only give the legal maximum of $2,100 to her would-be friend’s campaign committee. But if that incumbent has a leadership PAC, then she can give $5,000 per year from her leadership PAC to that PAC.
If our Republocrat’s sitting in a safe district, she can encourage donors to give to her leadership PAC instead of her re-election campaign committee. She can use the donations in the leadership PAC to make friends with others in the House — by giving $5,000 to the leadership PAC of someone she wishes to be friendly with (or buy, to be blunt). The more money in her leadership PAC, the more influence she can peddle.
By making donations to members of their party, ambitious lawmakers can use their leadership PACs to gain clout among their colleagues and boost their bids for leadership posts or committee chairmanships. Politicians also use leadership PACs to lay the groundwork for their own campaigns for higher office. And some use their PACs to hire additional staff—sometimes even their family members—and to travel around the country or eat in some of Washington’s finest restaurants. The limits on how a politician can spend leadership PAC money are not especially strict. Also, lacking a requirement that lawmakers disclose their affiliations with leadership PACs, these committees have been able to slip under the radar for years.
And big money is involved. And big donors chip in. Contributions to politicians’ leadership PACs reported to the Federal Elections Commission from 1990 and into the 2012 election cycle total $286,110,856. Only about $3.5 million came from individuals; $268,358,732 came from other PACs. On the Hill, outside PACs feed leadership PACs at five grand a clip. That adds up over time.
Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision of two years ago, so-called super PACs are getting most of the media attention — even though super PACs were created as a result of the Court’s July 2010 SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission decision. Leadership PACs have been overlooked because, it appears, super PACs raise (and hide) a helluva lot more money. But leadership PACs, over time, have raised enormous amounts of moolah.
Super PACs differ from leadership PACs, according to the center. Such PACs, also known as independent-expenditure committees, may raise as much money as they want. No limitation are placed on the size of donation a contributor may make. Super PACs may not donate money directly to political candidates. But they can spend as much money as they want to “overtly advocate for or against political candidates.” According to the center, at least “290 groups organized as Super PACs have reported total receipts of $32,008,813 and total expenditures of $34,335,760 in the 2012 cycle.” (See the list here.)
The 2012 election cycle is far from over, with the greatest amount of spending yet to come. But in a little more than a year and a half, super PACs have pulled in more than $32 billion. You’ve seen how that money has been used in advertising to support or, more often, attack presidential candidates in the primaries so far. Florida’s a pricey state for ad buys, so super PACs will raise even more and spend even more.
So far, in the 2012 election cycle, leadership PACs have pulled in nearly $12 million, a third of the identified super PAC donations. But in the 2010 election cycle, the leadership PACs hauled in more than $52 million. That’s a lot of $5,000 checks.
The current speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner, wrote plenty of them. In fact, in 2006, when he wanted Republicans to vote for a free-trade agreement with Oman (Oman? Really?), he had already “invested” in the vote of my then-congressman. Boehner’s leadership PAC, the Freedom Project, gave my then-House rep $10,000 — $5,000 in the 2004 election cycle and $5,000 in 2006. From a post I wrote in 2006:
In fact, Rep. Boehner’s leadership PAC since 1997 has disbursed more than 530 checks worth $5,000 each to House incumbents and GOP House candidates. That’s more than $2.6 million of largesse spread among the faithful. The PAC shipped off more than $189,000 in 64 smaller checks. And there’s the $15,000 sent each year since 2002 to the National Republican Campaign Committee.
Here’s the list of recipients of checks from the Freedom Project.)
Boehner is speaker in significant measure because he spread the wealth and, in turn, received political support as he climbed higher in the House. (But apparently he didn’t spread enough to the tea party conservatives swept into the House in 2010. They’ve balked several times at his leadership. And they’re learning how to play the PAC game.) That’s the primary role of leadership PACs: financially support other incumbents and candidates in return for political support later.
You’ll read a great deal in coming months about super PACs and their big-money influence on the 2012 elections. But over the long term, political power in Congress is heavily influenced by leadership PACs and how they’re used.
Oh, by the way, leadership PACs are regulated — but loosely. Funds in leadership PACs cannot be allocated to personal use. But after a senator or representative leaves Congress, that prohibition no longer applies.
Here’s the lede from a November 2010 New York Times story by Eric Lipton about abuses of leadership PACs:
Henry Bonilla, a Texas Republican and former member of Congress, has tapped into his political piggy bank to fly around the United States, eat at some of San Antonio’s finest restaurants and to cover bills at luxury hotels like The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla. [emphasis added]
And later in the story:
Former members are largely free to spend the money left over in their political action committees however they choose. [emphasis added]
Apparently, you can take it with you.
Nice gig, eh?