McCain, Feingold Targeting Rider

Posted September 12, 2005 at 6:25pm

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) implored their colleagues Monday to support their efforts to remove a campaign-finance rider to the Treasury-Transportation appropriations bill, which is slated to come to the Senate floor as early as this week.

The provision would allow lawmakers’ leadership political action committees to give unlimited funds to the national party committees, opening what the two Senators believe would be a significant loophole in the campaign finance law.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter, Feingold and McCain noted that national parties could turn around and spend those funds on the lawmaker’s own re-election, “effectively subverting individual and PAC donor contribution limits on the amounts that can be given to a Member’s campaign.”

But the back-door change has high-level support in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), whose presidential aspirations could be aided by the provision, gave the language his endorsement before the August recess. Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a longtime foe of campaign finance restrictions, is also supporting the measure.

The principal difference between a lawmaker’s personal campaign and that of his or her leadership PAC is that funds from the latter cannot be spent on direct mail, broadcast ads and other items that directly aid the candidate’s campaign. The money from leadership PACs is used primarily as funding for the lawmaker’s travel and as a way to gain chits with fellow lawmakers by making contributions to their campaigns.

Like all other political action committees, leadership PACs are currently subject to an annual limit of $15,000 for transfers to the national party committees. The proposed language would treat leadership PACs like candidates’ personal campaign committees when it comes to transfers to the national parties.

No one during the past few years has sat on as large a pile of leadership PAC cash as Frist, who as of June 30 had almost $1.2 million left in his account. He’s already given the maximum donations to every GOP Senator running for re-election, leaving him to spread his money around to House campaigns — unless this provision allows him to dump large amounts of cash into the NRSC and the RNC.

“This major change in campaign finance law would seriously undermine the effectiveness of longstanding contribution limits which serve as the foundation of the nation’s campaign finance laws,” McCain and Feingold wrote.

“Let’s be very clear on another point — this provision benefits no one but incumbent Members of Congress by allowing them to circumvent those same contribution limits by which their opponents will be forced to abide,” the two added in boldface type.

A few years ago, leadership PACs were used primarily by a handful of Members with leadership aspirations, but recently the committees have become more common and are now used by rank-and-file and junior lawmakers as well.

The language in the Treasury-Transportation bill also does something seemingly technical but that could nonetheless have a significant impact on campaign-finance law: It codifies for the first time the term “leadership PAC,” which heretofore has been an informal term to refer to political action committees informally linked to lawmakers used to further their aspirations for elected leadership. Many campaign reform groups already believe them to be dubiously legal, at best, as they are used in practice as an vehicle for lawmakers to raise money outside of the existing contribution limits.

McCain and Feingold concluded by asserting that substantive changes to the campaign finance laws should occur only after “adequate” debate, the antithesis of which would be “[s]lipping a rider onto an appropriations bill in a subcommittee markup.”

The two plan to force a vote on the provision on the Senate floor.