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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 HaalandDebra HaalandOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats push Biden to pick Haaland as next Interior secretary | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | Wasserman Schultz pitches climate plan in race to chair Appropriations House Democrats push Biden to pick Haaland as next Interior secretary The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Pence, Biden wage tug of war over pandemic plans 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 PressleyGOP congresswoman-elect wants to form Republican 'Squad' called 'The Force' Pelosi faces caucus divisions in Biden era Record number of Black women elected to Congress in 2020 MORE (Mass.), with more than $12,000, Rep. Steven HorsfordSteven Alexander HorsfordNevada Democrat Steven Horsford wins reelection The robbing of a wildlife refuge in Nevada Rep. Steven Horsford wins Democratic House primary in Nevada MORE (Nev.) at $7,500, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez defends Harry Styles wearing dress on Vogue cover: 'It looks wonderful' Democrats' squabbling vindicates Biden non-campaign GOP congresswoman-elect wants to form Republican 'Squad' called 'The Force' 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 KaineRick Scott tests positive for coronavirus Grassley tests positive for coronavirus Top Democrat calls Trump's Afghan drawdown 'the right policy decision' as others warn of 'mistake' MORE's (D-Va.) and Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonLoeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection More conservatives break with Trump over election claims Warnock hit by Republicans over 'cannot serve God and the military' comment 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 RiceHillicon Valley: Simulated cyberattack success | New bill for election security funding | Amazon could be liable for defective products Lawmakers introduce bill to help election officials address cyber vulnerabilities House lawmakers to launch probe into DHS excluding NY from Trusted Traveler Program MORE (D-N.Y.), Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerHillicon Valley: House panel says Intelligence Community not equipped to address Chinese threats | House approves bill to send cyber resources to state, local governments House approves legislation to send cybersecurity resources to state, local governments Is Congress reasserting itself? MORE (D-Wash.) and Mike GallagherMichael (Mike) John GallagherReestablishing American prosperity by investing in the 'Badger Belt' Actors union blasts Democrat for criticizing GOP lawmaker's wife Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats 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 SherrillOvernight Defense: Armed Services chairman unsold on slashing defense budget | Democratic Senate report details 'damage, chaos' of Trump foreign policy | Administration approves .8B Taiwan arms sales Democratic House chairman trusts Pentagon won't follow 'unlawful orders' on election involvement Overnight Defense: National Guard says no federal requests for election security help | Dems accuse VA head of misusing resources | Army official links COVID-19 to troop suicides 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 CunninghamGOP Rep. Dan Newhouse tests positive for COVID-19 Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter tests positive for coronavirus Bustos tests positive for COVID-19 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 CrenshawOvernight Defense: Trump orders troop drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq | Key Republicans call Trump plan a 'mistake' Annual Wreaths Across America event at Arlington National Cemetery back on after backlash over cancellation Crenshaw hits back at Greene, tells her to 'start acting like' a member of Congress 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 CramerPressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win Sunday shows - Virus surge dominates ahead of fraught Thanksgiving holiday GOP senator calls for cooperation on Biden transition: 'I'd rather have a president that has more than one day to prepare' MORE (R-N.D.) to more than $350,000 for Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnSunday shows preview: Biden transition, COVID-19 spike in spotlight Senate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus Senate Judiciary to vote on subpoena for Twitter CEO next week 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 Randall MeadowsOvernight Defense: Pentagon set for tighter virus restrictions as top officials tests positive | Military sees 11th COVID-19 death | House Democrats back Senate language on Confederate base names Trump administration revives talk of action on birthright citizenship House Democrats back slower timeline for changing Confederate base names MORE’s (R-N.C.) House Freedom Fund, which has more than $3 million, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyRichmond says GOP 'reluctant to stand up and tell the emperor he wears no clothes' Sunday shows preview: Biden transition, COVID-19 spike in spotlight Drastic cuts proposed to Medicare would hurt health care quality MORE’s (R-Calif.) Majority Committee PAC, with almost $2 million, and House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHoyer on Trump election challenges: 'I think this borders on treason' Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview Nominated for another Speaker term, Pelosi says it's her last MORE’s (D-Md.) AmeriPAC: The Fund for a Greater America, which has just over $1.5 million.

Sutton Dunwoodie contributed to this report.