Since leadership PACs began proliferating in the mid-1990s, campaign finance experts have debated whether the accounts should be considered affiliated with the re-election campaigns of Members who control them. Those in favor of the PACs have argued that considering them legally linked to lawmakers would mean subjecting them to the overall contribution limits on campaign accounts, thereby defeating their purpose as a source of extra funds.
The Federal Election Commission ruled on the matter in late 2003, determining broadly that leadership PACs in fact would not be considered affiliated with lawmakers’ campaign committees.
“It gave the green light that you no longer had to worry about creating distance between the leadership PAC and the Member,” said Marc Elias, a campaign finance lawyer.
Nevertheless, most lawmakers continued to form leadership PACs quietly, kicking them off with no public announcement.
Two groups that track the accounts — the Center for Responsive Politics and CQ PoliticalMoneyLine — rely on sleuth work to figure out who is behind them.
Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the center, said when a new fund pops up, researchers there first look at its name to decide whether it’s a leadership PAC, rather than a corporate or ideological fund. A patriotic name — such as the Pro-Liberty PAC, for California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher — or one that seems to be an acronym — Every Republican is Crucial, or ERIC PAC, for House Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) — usually signals a lawmaker controls it.
The groups then examine the address listed to try to narrow it down to a delegation. They compare treasurers, banks, vendors and contributors to see if there is a heavy overlap with any campaign committees.
Kent Cooper, of CQ PoliticalMoneyLine, said he also keeps an eye peeled for mentions, often in the society pages, of fundraising events. They sometimes list lawmakers as “honorary chairmen” of the PACs — usually a strong tip-off that a Member is behind the fund. When an account stumps him, he scours subsequent reports for new clues.
After a leading suspect emerges, the groups said they call the lawmaker’s office to confirm. “Sometimes they will be cagey about it,” Ritsch said. “Other times they will be very proud they’ve reached a point where they can fill the coffers of another committee.”
On Monday morning, Cooper was puzzling over a PAC called Conservative Opportunities for a New America. Records for the fund showed payments to Increase Strategies, a political consulting firm also retained by the campaign of Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas). It was registered in Midland, Texas, located in Conaway’s 11th district, and its title seemed to be an acronym for the first letters of his last name.
Cooper called the office and left a message. A couple hours later, a Conaway staffer returned the call and confirmed: It was a match.
In total, Cooper’s group has identified 729 leadership PACs and joint fundraising committees associated with lawmakers, but most of them are not currently active.
The Center for Responsive Politics has nailed 284 leadership PACs for current Members, with six of those inactive last year. Ritsch said the group is working through a list of nearly 200 additional committees, though researchers expect only a small number of them are linked to lawmakers.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.