Some PACs Still Packing a Punch

Posted September 11, 2007 at 6:30pm

It could be a perfect cure for any lobbyists’ back-to-Congress, post-recess blues: a weekend hunting trip Oct. 6-8 at Texas’ Dos Angeles Ranch for $1,500 per person or $3,000 per political action committee, plus expenses, of course.

The weekend getaway will benefit Common Sense Common Solutions, the leadership PAC of Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas). The ranch is owned by former eight-term Texas Republican Jack Fields, now a lobbyist in Washington. Neither Fields nor Granger’s office returned calls for comment.

Granger’s jaunt, however, is just one example of the many out-of-town escapes that Members, whether in leadership or not, have scheduled to benefit the coffers of their “leadership” PACs.

Now, in light of the newly passed lobbying and ethics reform bill — which did virtually nothing to change lobbyists’ involvement in the leadership PAC retreats — Members and lobbyists who are itching to get some outside-the-Beltway face time are finding leadership PAC fundraisers the perfect solution.

“How can they say they’ve reformed the system when I can give a Member $5,000 and pay for a vacation for the Member’s family,” wonders one GOP lobbyist who has donated to leadership PACs. “Why is that OK? — But I can’t buy him a $20 lunch.”

Government reform advocates and some Members say the leadership PAC loophole should be tightened legislatively, and even some lobbyists complain that the PACs can serve as Members’ slush funds.

For starters, they say, Members should not be allowed to use their leadership PAC money for personal expenses once they leave Congress, something that is allowed under current law.

Although Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) supported the recent lobbying and ethics bill, his spokesman, Chris Jackson, said Gingrey’s chief complaint was that the bill didn’t go far enough on leadership PAC reforms.

Gingrey had wanted to offer an amendment that would ban former lawmakers from using PAC funds for personal use upon their retirement from Congress.

“These PACs can raise an unbelievable amount of money that can be swapped over to be the personal money for a Member,” Jackson said, adding that after retiring, “a Congressman could use it to get a new house on the beach.”

The GOP lobbyist said some of his colleagues are concerned with the appearances of donating to some leadership PACs in light of the recent spate of Justice Department investigations involving lobbyists such as Jack Abramoff and former Members such as Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio).

Congressional observers might agree.

“What’s so striking is how little money actually goes to candidates,” said Massie Ritsch of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. “So much of the money collected by leadership PACs goes to overhead and staff and really things that look a lot like personal expenses by the Member who controls the PAC. They travel around the country.”

For donors, Ritsch added, leadership PACs are just “another pot of money they can give to to get the access they need with the politician and set themselves apart from the run-of-the-mill donor who only gives to the campaign committee.”

Jan Baran, a campaign finance lawyer at Wiley Rein, said that the only change related to leadership PACs in the lobbying reform bill is that starting next year, the PACs, as well as other fundraising committees, will have to report the names of lobbyists who bundle contributions totalling more than $15,000 on behalf of the PAC.

House and Senate ethics rules prohibit current Members from using leadership PAC money for “personal” use because of gift rules. Baran said no such restrictions apply after a Member leaves office, but ex-Members who spend the money for personal uses would need to pay income taxes on it.

But what is considered “personal use” can remain fuzzy. For example, Members can bring along spouses and other relatives to participate in fundraising retreats. The funds can also pay staff and consultants.

One Democratic lobbyist who has gone on leadership PAC trips said they can be a good way to forge relationships with Members — up to a point. “It’s kind of a fun thing to do, but how many of them can you do?” this lobbyist said. “You have limits, and these are expensive weekends.”

Lobbyists not only have to fork over the donation. They usually have to pick up their own tabs as well.

Fred Wertheimer, who runs the government reform group Democracy 21, said that the recent ethics law dealt primarily with lobbyists, not campaign finance, which is why leadership PACs were not primarily affected. “We still have work, and we still plan to aggressively pursue reforming the campaign finance laws,” he said.

Larry O’Brien, a high-dollar Democratic donor and founder of the OB-C Group, said he occasionally gives money to leadership PACs. But they are so common now that many have become a joke, he said. “Everybody and his or her uncle has one,” O’Brien quipped.

But, he said, “in the brave new world out here now, they might have a relative marketing advantage in terms of attracting participants because of the travel aspects.”