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 HaalandMichelle Obama wishes Barack a happy birthday: 'My favorite guy' One way we can honor John Lewis' legacy: Amend the 13th Amendment Native American lawmaker: 'Redskins' name change 'should have been made a long time ago' 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 PressleyMinneapolis Star Tribune endorses Ilhan Omar's primary challenger Tlaib wins Michigan Democratic primary Longtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary MORE (Mass.), with more than $12,000, Rep. Steven HorsfordSteven Alexander HorsfordThe robbing of a wildlife refuge in Nevada Rep. Steven Horsford wins Democratic House primary in Nevada Overnight Defense: Army now willing to rename bases named after Confederates | Dems demand answers on 'unfathomable' nuke testing discussions | Pentagon confirms death of north African al Qaeda leader MORE (Nev.) at $7,500, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHispanic Caucus asks for Department of Labor meeting on COVID in meatpacking plants Harris, Ocasio-Cortez push climate equity bill with Green New Deal roots Young minority voters show overwhelming support for Biden: poll 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 KaineEx-USAID employee apologizes, denies sending explosive tweets USAID appointee alleges 'rampant anti-Christian sentiment' at agency Frustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal MORE's (D-Va.) and Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonHillicon Valley: Facebook bans ads from pro-Trump PAC | Uber reports big drop in revenue | US offers M reward for election interference info Senate passes legislation to ban TikTok on federal devices Tennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans 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 RiceHouse lawmakers to launch probe into DHS excluding NY from Trusted Traveler Program New York lawmaker spotted helping mother duck and ducklings cross busy street Minnesota AG Keith Ellison says racism is a bigger problem than police behavior; 21 states see uptick in cases amid efforts to reopen MORE (D-N.Y.), Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerOur national forests need protection — and Congress can help Democrats debate how and when to get House back in action Cornell to launch new bipartisan publication led by former Rep. Steve Israel MORE (D-Wash.) and Mike GallagherMichael (Mike) John GallagherCongress has a shot at correcting Trump's central mistake on cybersecurity Cheney battle raises questions about House GOP's future House-passed defense spending bill includes provision establishing White House cyber czar 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 SherrillOcasio-Cortez, Democrats blast GOP on House floor for 'culture' of sexism The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Facebook — Fauci touts COVID-19 vaccine news Cash-strapped cities hammered by COVID-19 beg for federal help 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 CunninghamMultiple lawmakers self-quarantine after exposure to Gohmert Hoyer: Maskless Republicans a public health threat Gohmert 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 CrenshawABC News mocked for 'peaceful demonstration intensified' report The Memo: Muted conventions may scramble 2020 race The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Fauci says focus should be on pausing reopenings rather than reverting to shutdowns; WHO director pleads for international unity in pandemic response 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 CramerThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: iBIO Chairman and CEO Thomas Isett says developing a safe vaccine is paramount; US surpasses 150,000 coronavirus deaths with roughy one death per minute McConnell tees up showdown on unemployment benefits Senate panel scraps confirmation hearing for controversial Pentagon nominee at last minute MORE (R-N.D.) to more than $350,000 for Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnTennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans GOP may face choice on tax cut or stimulus checks Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads 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 MeadowsCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame On The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Top Democrats say postmaster confirmed changes to mail service amid delays MORE’s (R-N.C.) House Freedom Fund, which has more than $3 million, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyJudge throws out House GOP lawsuit over proxy voting Republicans fear disaster in November Gaetz set to endorse primary opponent of fellow Florida GOP lawmaker MORE’s (R-Calif.) Majority Committee PAC, with almost $2 million, and House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOn The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Overnight Health Care: Ohio governor tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Trump's visit | US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead | Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire MORE’s (D-Md.) AmeriPAC: The Fund for a Greater America, which has just over $1.5 million.

Sutton Dunwoodie contributed to this report.