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Progressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising

Progressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising

A third of progressives in Congress’s freshman class have formed leadership PACs, a move that has helped lawmakers raise their profile within the party but also drawn scrutiny from outside liberal groups decrying the influence of money in politics.

Seven out of the 21 first-year lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) have leadership PACs, compared with three at this point in the previous Congress.

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The PACs, often funded by corporations, trade associations and labor unions, can be used by lawmakers to donate to other candidates and pay for expenses that are typically off-limits to campaigns and congressional offices.

And that’s not sitting well with some groups that are otherwise supportive of progressive lawmakers.

“Leadership PACs have essentially become slush funds and are one of the most egregious loopholes in campaign finance laws,” Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink, told The Hill. “No progressive candidates should have one. Instead, they should focus on grassroots fundraising, while simultaneously working for publicly funded elections and for overturning Citizens United.”

Any lawmaker, former lawmaker, or political figure can form a leadership PAC. And having one is considered a necessity for climbing the party ranks, for both Democrats and Republicans.

Rep. Deb HaalandDeb HaalandOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden returns to Obama-era greenhouse gas calculation | House passes major public lands package | Biden administration won't defend Trump-era relaxation of bird protections Indigenous groups post billboards urging senators to confirm Deb Haaland The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Senate ref axes minimum wage, House votes today on relief bill MORE (N.M.) is the freshman CPC member with the most in her leadership PAC. She has $20,000 in total receipts, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

She’s followed by Rep. Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyPressley says image of Black custodial staff cleaning up Capitol after Jan. 6 riot 'haunts' her DeJoy apologizes for mail delays while defending Postal Service changes DeJoy set for grilling by House Oversight panel MORE (Mass.), with more than $12,000, Rep. Steven HorsfordSteven Alexander HorsfordCongressional Black Caucus unveils '100 Day Plan' House panel advances measure expanding unemployment benefits in relief package Nevada Democrat Steven Horsford wins reelection MORE (Nev.) at $7,500, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezBudget Committee chair pledges to raise minimum wage: 'Hold me to it' Democrats scramble to rescue minimum wage hike Exclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren MORE (N.Y.) with more than $5,000.

The freshman CPC lawmakers' offices did not respond to requests for comment.

While leadership PACs are not associated with their own campaigns, they are used to pay for various campaign-related items. 

During the 2018 cycle, politicians used leadership PACs to pay for golf clubs, resorts, NFL games and international travel, according to a letter Issue One and Campaign Legal Center sent to the Federal Election Commission in May.

For the World Series in D.C. last month, Sens. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission Biden administration to give Congress full classified briefing on Syria strikes by next week Senators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence MORE's (D-Va.) and Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonDemocrats scramble to rescue minimum wage hike Cotton defends call for Insurrection Act, assails 'child mob' at NYT Golden statue of Trump at CPAC ridiculed online MORE's (R-Ark.) leadership PACs were accepting $5,000 donations for tickets to a game.

The vast majority of members of Congress have leadership PACs, including three lawmakers who have introduced legislation to curtail them.

Reps. Kathleen RiceKathleen Maura RiceTensions running high after gun incident near House floor Trust between lawmakers reaches all-time low after Capitol riots Trump's Georgia call triggers debate on criminal penalties MORE (D-N.Y.), Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerModerate Democrats press for auto-stabilizers in COVID-19 aid package House Democrat says federal workforce recovering from 'a lot of harm' under Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Focus on vaccine, virus, travel MORE (D-Wash.) and Mike GallagherMichael (Mike) John GallagherLawmakers to roll out legislation reorganizing State cyber office House Republicans gear up for conference meeting amid party civil war Back to the future: America must renew its commitment to scientific inquiry MORE (R-Wis.) have introduced the Political Accountability and Transparency Act, which would impose restrictions on the use of campaign funds for personal use to leadership PACs funds.

Not all progressive groups are opposed to the PACs that have become almost ubiquitous on Capitol Hill. 

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Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), argued that the freshman CPC members with leadership PACs have strong grassroots fundraising bases. He also noted that unlike super PACs, the leadership ones have limitations on contributions.

“Big-money SuperPACs, where billionaires make unlimited donations to flood the zone, represent corruption in our democracy,” Green said. “Small-dollar political action committees like MoveOn, the PCCC, Justice Democrats, and these grassroots-funded leadership PACs by progressives like [Ocasio-Cortez] and [Rep.] Ilhan [Omar (D-Minn.)] are how workers and grandmas unite to take back our democracy together. One is the poison, the other is the antidote.”

Individuals can give up to $5,000 per year to a leadership PAC, compared to the $2,800 an individual can contribute to a campaign. That $5,000 cap is also the limit for corporate and trade association PACs, as well as for candidate committees and party committees.

The centrist Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of centrist Democrats, has only two freshmen with leadership PACs. Ten freshmen are in the coalition, which consists of 26 members overall. The CPC has 99 members.

Rep. Mikie SherrillRebecca (Mikie) Michelle SherrillTim Ryan: Prosecutors reviewing video of Capitol tours given by lawmakers before riot Calls grow for 9/11-style panel to probe Capitol attack Belfast's Troubles echo in today's Washington MORE (D-N.J.) has the most of the freshman Blue Dogs, with $6,000 in total receipts.

Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), a co-chair of the Blue Dogs, formed a leadership PAC in January but has not yet raised any money for it.

Blue Dog member Rep. Joe CunninghamJoseph CunninghamLobbying world We lost in November — we're proud we didn't take corporate PAC money Chamber of Commerce slams GOP effort to challenge Biden's win MORE (D-S.C.), does not have a leadership PAC and his spokesperson said he has no plans to do so.

“He hasn’t taken a single dime from PACs or special interest groups. He’s accountable to the people of the Lowcountry and no one else,” spokeswoman Rebecca Drago said, referring to the region in South Carolina that Cunningham represents.

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Of the House freshmen, 47 out of 89 have leadership PACs — 24 Democrats and 23 Republicans.

Other freshman offices told The Hill they are in the process of forming leadership PACs.

Rep. Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawSix ways to visualize a divided America Texas lawmakers' tweets mocking California power outages resurface amid winter storm Will the post-Trump GOP party be coming anytime soon? MORE (R-Texas) has the most in his leadership PAC out of all House freshmen, with just under $58,000. He is closely followed by Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), who has more than $56,000. 

All nine of the Senate freshmen have leadership PACs and collectively have in excess of $1.4 million. Those amounts ranged from $5,000 for Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerOn The Money: Manhattan DA obtains Trump tax returns | Biden nominee previews post-Trump trade agenda | Biden faces first setback as Tanden teeters OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senate confirms former Michigan governor Granholm as Energy secretary | GOP bill would codify Trump rule on financing for fossil fuels, guns | Kennedy apologizes for calling Haaland a 'whack job' GOP bill would codify Trump rule on financing for fossil fuels, guns MORE (R-N.D.) to more than $350,000 for Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnPassage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers Biden health nominee faces first Senate test MORE (R-Tenn.), much of which she carried over from when she was in the House.

The biggest leadership PACs on Capitol Hill belong to Rep. Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsHow scientists saved Trump's FDA from politics Liberals howl after Democrats cave on witnesses Kinzinger calls for people with info on Trump to come forward MORE’s (R-N.C.) House Freedom Fund, which has more than $3 million, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike Trump at CPAC foments 2022 GOP primary wars McCarthy: No commitment from Trump to not target Republicans MORE’s (R-Calif.) Majority Committee PAC, with almost $2 million, and House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse set for tight vote on COVID-19 relief package Key Democrat unveils plan to restore limited earmarks Overnight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission MORE’s (D-Md.) AmeriPAC: The Fund for a Greater America, which has just over $1.5 million.

Sutton Dunwoodie contributed to this report.