Leadership PACs ‘Not Sinister,’ FEC Told

Republican Attorneys Ask FEC Not to Change Regulations

Posted February 26, 2003 at 6:33pm

In a quest to save leadership PACs from their potential demise, Republican election lawyers pleaded Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission to essentially maintain the status quo regarding regulation of the popular fundraising vehicles. “I do not believe this particular provision is as broke as is being implied by these hearings,” Paul Sullivan of Foley & Lardner said.

GOP attorney Cleta Mitchell told the FEC there might be room to gently tweak the law to provide a better definition of what constitutes a leadership political action committee.

But she said she disagrees with widespread perception in some circles that leadership PACs are somehow corrupt or tainted or that they ought to be disbanded.

“We call them leadership PACs because they are used by Members to raise money for other candidates,” Mitchell said. “It encourages Members to raise money for somebody besides themselves, which is a good thing.

“They’re not sinister! They’re not stealth!” Mitchell said emphatically.

The six-member commission is considering adopting new rules that would deem such PACs to be affiliated with the Members of Congress who establish them and be subject to a single contribution limit along with lawmakers’ re-election campaign committees.

Currently, the FEC treats such entities as nonconnected PACs, meaning they are separate accounts and not considered affiliated with lawmakers’ re-election committees.

The FEC took no decisive action at Wednesday’s hearing but is expected to take up and vote on several proposals at a future date, yet undetermined.

Leadership PACs have grown incredibly popular in recent years, with nearly one-third of all lawmakers establishing such entities as another avenue to raise money for colleagues, and state and local candidates, thereby boosting their own political profile.

But critics such as Common Cause General Counsel Don Simon said leadership PACs are little more than an added “slush fund” for Members of Congress, allowing them to evade legal contribution limits while increasing their own “stature, visibility, impact and influence.”

Simon and many others at Wednesday’s hearing said the PACs are frequently used by presidential hopefuls in the House and Senate to pay for such things as polling, research and travel to key states.

“Allowing these committees to remain unaffiliated makes the contribution limits meaningless,” Simon said during the hearing.

The proposed regulations — spearheaded by GOP Commissioner Michael Toner and supported by fellow Republican Commissioner Bradley Smith — would effectively render leadership PACs impotent.

Scott Thomas, a Democrat on the commission, has offered an alternative proposal that would essentially codify the status quo and allow leadership PACs to continue operating as they have been for years.

Lawyer Don McGahn — speaking on behalf of a dozen or so GOP House Members, including Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio), and Reps. David Dreier (Calif.), John Doolittle (Calif.), Jack Kingston (Ga.), Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) and Tom Davis (Va.) — argued that such proposals would “take away critical funding” from those who need it the most, challengers and open-seat candidates.

McGahn maintains that about half of all funds donated to candidates by leadership PACs go to open-seat candidates and challengers, adding that any move to abolish such PACs would simply give incumbents another advantage.

Mitchell suggested that if the FEC must do anything on leadership PACs, it should clarify what constitutes a leadership PAC and perhaps establish some minimum threshold requirements, such as requiring committees to give away 20 percent to 25 percent of its funds to other candidates.

Mitchell said she believes a low threshold should be considered because different committees raise funds in different ways, with some spending more money to raise less funds from small-dollar contributors.

McGahn, however, said he opposes any such requirement, calling it “unfair to the little guys.”

Ellen Weintraub, the FEC’s Democratic chairwoman, asked the panel of lawyers if current regulations — which would limit a donor’s contributions to $4,000 to a Senator’s campaign committee but allow the donor to give $30,000 to that Senator’s leadership PAC over a six-year period — troubled them. Weintraub wondered if the donor would be more likely to get in that Senator’s door, creating an appearance that he or she was buying access by contributing to that leadership PAC.

McGahn, however, noted that leadership PACs do not have a monopoly on donors’ dollars.

“There’s plenty of opportunity for this mythic donor to buy this mythic Senator’s influence,” he said, noting that the same donor could expect favorable treatment from the same Senator for contributing $25,000 to the political party’s federal coffers.

Opponents of leadership PACs painted a more troubling picture, however.

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics and former FEC general counsel, said leadership PACs are “nothing more than parallel campaign committees” and an “easily and accessible avenue by which contributors can evade contribution limits.”

Glen Shor of the Campaign and Media Legal Center said the FEC’s longstanding tolerance of leadership PACs has “translated to officeholders having a second political fund at their disposal.”