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Campaign reform frenzy overlooks leadership PACs

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February 14, 2006

By MARGARET TALEV
McClatchy Newspapers

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 Arkansas.”

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 records.

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.”