Campaign reform frenzy overlooks leadership PACs

Alaska Rep. Don Young gained infamy last year as the chairman of the
House Transportation Committee who secured more than $200 million for a
“bridge to nowhere” in his home state.

Less noticed was his support for projects elsewhere in the country
favored by contributors to Midnight Sun, a political action committee.
Known as a leadership PAC, Midnight Sun is controlled by Young, and its
treasurer is a registered lobbyist with a client list that includes
transportation interests.

In southeast Arkansas, more than a dozen men and women connected to
road paving and auto sales in and near Pine Bluff gave about $28,000
last March to Midnight Sun, on top of about $20,000 to Young’s
re-election committee. When the highway bill passed a few months later,
it had more than $200 million for their region over the next five
years, including a $72 million interstate construction project
extending to Pine Bluff.

Young’s office and several Arkansas donors declined to comment for
this story. One donor, Clydine Davis, said of Young in a telephone
interview, “We just all banded together to support him as he supports

Members of Congress are pledging to pass legislation this year
addressing voters’ concerns about the influence of money and lobbying
in policymaking. A string of scandals has led to criminal
investigations of lobbyists and lawmakers in recent months and a guilty
plea and resignation of one congressman.

Many campaign finance experts see leadership PACs as part of the
problem, a way to skirt campaign limits and hide special-interest ties.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have said
leadership PACs should be included in the reform debate, especially in
terms of how involved in them lobbyists can be.

“It’s all got to do with the relationship between them and whether there’s too much influence or not,” McCain said.

But few lawmakers want to clamp down on a fund-raising vehicle that
is being increasingly relied on by politicians as other contribution
limits have kicked in.

“The more you clamp down on money the more you’re going to
proliferate these types of devices,” said Jan Baran, a top federal
election law attorney who has advised the Republican Party.

Once the domain of presidential candidates-in-waiting and the
Republican and Democrat leaders of Congress, leadership PACs have
proliferated to the point that even many junior lawmakers have their
own, on top of their personal campaign accounts.

In the early 1980s, Baran said, a handful of leadership PACs flourished. By the late 1990s, times had changed.

“We knew it was sort of out of control when there was a new freshman
elected from Sacramento named Doug Ose, and before he was even sworn in
he’d established a leadership PAC,” Baran said. “These PACs really
didn’t have a lot to do anymore with leadership. It just meant it was a
political vehicle.”

Ose is no longer in Congress. But by 2000, Political Money Line, a
group that tracks campaign finance trends, identified 241 leadership
PACs that raised $96 million. By 2004, it found 361 leadership PACs
that raised $128 million. So far in the 2006 cycle, it has identified
447 leadership PACs.

Leadership PACs often operate with less scrutiny from lawmakers’
constituents because they aren’t required to identify the controlling
lawmaker in their name.

And they are increasingly being bankrolled _ and overseen _ by lobbyists.

By 2000, there were at least 52 lobbyist-run candidate campaign
committees and leadership PACs, the watchdog group Center for Public
Integrity found.

By the end of 2004, at least 74 campaign committees and leadership
PACs were run by lobbyists, according to combined data from the Center
for Public Integrity, Political Money Line and the Senate’s lobbying

These include many accounts controlled by minority Democrats as well
as majority Republicans. Among those records show have lobbyists as
treasurers are Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

Some PAC treasurers essentially serve as accountants, while others
are fund-raisers. They are not currently required to disclose which
role they play.

“Lobbyists often advertise their revolving door connections to
members of Congress and sometimes they advertise that they’re in charge
of these leadership and campaign committees,” said Alex Knott,
political editor for the Center for Public Integrity. “This allows
potential clients to know how well connected they are to the members of
Congress they seek and pay to influence. These campaign contributions
and the actions of these lobbyists can clearly play a role in
Americans’ democracy.”

California Rep. David Dreier is chairman of the House Rules
Committee, in which most all lobbyists have an interest because it sets
procedures for how legislation and amendments will be debated.

Dreier’s leadership PAC, American Success, relies heavily on
lobbyists. In the 2004 election cycle, 70 percent of the more than
$100,000 in individual contributions reported to American Success came
from lobbyists, their family members or executives in lobbying firms,
records show.

Several of the corporate political action committees that gave to
American Success, meanwhile, were registered as clients of the lobbyist
who was treasurer of Dreier’s leadership PAC.

Separate from personal campaign accounts, leadership PACs are
vehicles for lawmakers to build political empires by amassing and
doling out money to loyal colleagues’ election campaigns. The new House
majority leader, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, has had one of the biggest
leadership PACs.

Leadership PACs allow larger contributions and looser spending
practices than campaign committees, as the law has been interpreted.
Individual contributors can give $10,000 per two-year cycle to a
leadership PAC, on top of $4,200 per cycle to the same lawmaker’s
re-election campaign. Corporate PACs can give $10,000 to a leadership
PAC, beyond their $10,000 campaign account limit.

Members of Congress can’t use campaign funds for “personal” uses
such as country club memberships or cars for their spouses, but “those
rules do not apply to leadership PACs,” said Trevor Potter, an election
lawyer and former Federal Election Commission chairman who argued
unsuccessfully during the early 1990s that PACs were not permitted by
federal law.

“You can use it basically for anything except your own re-election,
and for the less scrupulous members it becomes a legal slush fund,”
Potter said.

“Lobbyists have a right to lobby, but that’s different from serving
on a member’s finance committee and serving on leadership PACs,” Potter
said. “If the member is beholden to that lobbyist because the lobbyist
is the one raising money for them and getting them re-elected, it puts
the lawmaker in an awkward position, because they’re indebted.

“If we’re going to allow members to control these things, it ought
to list whose PAC it is,” Potter said. “That would be a minimal reform.”