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 HaalandTracy Stone-Manning's confirmation treatment was simply unacceptable — and it must stop Overnight Energy: Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections | Biden to return to pre-Obama water protections | Western governors ask Biden for aid on wildfires Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections 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 PressleyProgressives camp outside Capitol to protest evictions Pelosi disputes Biden's power to forgive student loans On The Money: Schumer, Warren call on Biden to extend student loan pause | IMF estimates 6 percent global growth this year MORE (Mass.), with more than $12,000, Rep. Steven HorsfordSteven Alexander HorsfordWorkers and seniors deserve investments in home care infrastructure Biden unveils plan for racial equity at Tulsa Race Massacre centennial Tulsa marks race massacre centennial as US grapples with racial injustice MORE (Nev.) at $7,500, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez: 'More than enough' votes to prevent infrastructure from passing without reconciliation bill Manchin: 'I can't really guarantee anybody' reconciliation package will pass Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate 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: Watchdog blasts government's handling of Afghanistan conflict | Biden asks Pentagon to look into mandatory vaccines | Congress passes new Capitol security bill GOP, Democrats battle over masks in House, Senate Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand foreign aid partnerships MORE's (D-Va.) and Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonUp next in the culture wars: Adding women to the draft Chuck Todd is dead wrong: Liberal bias defines modern journalism Ex-Rep. Abby Finkenauer running for Senate in Iowa 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 RiceSelect committee member thanks officers who responded Jan. 6: 'You were our last line of defense' Overnight Health Care: White House signals new COVID-19 strategy as delta variant spreads | McConnell urges vaccinations | Maryland says all COVID-19 deaths last month were among unvaccinated House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill MORE (D-N.Y.), Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerThe tale of the last bipartisan unicorns Head of House Office of Diversity and Inclusion urges more staff diversity House lawmakers roll out bill to invest 0 million in state and local cybersecurity MORE (D-Wash.) and Mike GallagherMichael (Mike) John GallagherWisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi considers adding GOP voices to Jan. 6 panel Ron Johnson: 'I may not be the best candidate' for 2022 midterms 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 SherrillDemocrat unveils bill to allow only House members to serve as Speaker Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections Moderate Democrats call for 9/11-style panel to probe COVID-19 origins 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 Cunningham'Blue wave' Democrats eye comebacks after losing reelection Top cyber Pentagon official overseeing defense contractor project placed on leave Joe Cunningham to enter race for South Carolina governor 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 CrenshawThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Officers recount the horror of Jan. 6 Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections 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 CramerBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Trump takes two punches from GOP The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands MORE (R-N.D.) to more than $350,000 for Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnMcCarthy jokes it'll be hard not to 'hit' Pelosi with gavel if he is Speaker Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on 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 MeadowsMeadows says Trump World looking to 'move forward in a real way' Trump takes two punches from GOP Watchdog urges Justice to probe Trump, Meadows for attempting to 'weaponize' DOJ MORE’s (R-N.C.) House Freedom Fund, which has more than $3 million, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthySunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate Kinzinger supports Jan. 6 panel subpoenas for Republicans, including McCarthy McCarthy jokes it'll be hard not to 'hit' Pelosi with gavel if he is Speaker MORE’s (R-Calif.) Majority Committee PAC, with almost $2 million, and House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerProgressives camp outside Capitol to protest evictions House adjourns for recess without passing bill to extend federal eviction ban Top Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure MORE’s (D-Md.) AmeriPAC: The Fund for a Greater America, which has just over $1.5 million.

Sutton Dunwoodie contributed to this report.