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 HaalandPressure mounts for national parks closure amid coronavirus We must demand our government decrease emissions from federal public lands Asian Pacific American Caucus vice chair 'shocked and dismayed' GOP leader referred to 'Chinese coronavirus' 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 PressleyMaryland Legislative Black Caucus pushes for state to release racial breakdown of coronavirus impact Pressley experiencing flu-like symptoms, being tested for COVID-19 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - Senate overcomes hurdles, passes massive coronavirus bill MORE (Mass.), with more than $12,000, Rep. Steven HorsfordSteven Alexander HorsfordBiden wins endorsement of key Nevada lawmaker Lawmakers trade insults over Trump budget cuts Democrats launch bilingual ad campaign off drug pricing bill MORE (Nev.) at $7,500, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOvernight Health Care: Global coronavirus cases top 1M | Cities across country in danger of becoming new hotspots | Trump to recommend certain Americans wear masks | Record 6.6M file jobless claims Trump blasts Schumer over 'incorrect sound bites' on coronavirus Trump warns against 'partisan investigations' after Pelosi establishes select committee on virus response 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 KaineBiden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much Students with disabilities could lose with COVID-19 stimulus package Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner MORE's (D-Va.) and Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonTrump's ambitious infrastructure vision faces Senate GOP roadblock  GOP lawmaker touts bill prohibiting purchases of drugs made in China Wisconsin Republican says US must not rely on China for critical supplies 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 RiceHere are the lawmakers who have self-quarantined as a precaution Top Democrats demand answers on DHS plans to deploy elite agents to sanctuary cities Buttigieg plans NY fundraiser with Michael J. Fox MORE (D-N.Y.), Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Hillicon Valley: Judge approves T-Mobile, Sprint merger | FTC to review past Big Tech deals | State officials ask for more cybersecurity help | House nears draft bill on self-driving cars Bipartisan lawmakers introduce bill to combat cyberattacks on state and local governments MORE (D-Wash.) and Mike GallagherMichael (Mike) John GallagherGOP lawmaker touts bill prohibiting purchases of drugs made in China Wisconsin Republican says US must not rely on China for critical supplies We weren't ready for a pandemic — imagine a crippling cyberattack 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 SherrillBiden rolls out over a dozen congressional endorsements after latest primary wins Elbow bumps, Spock salutes: How Congress is dealing with coronavirus Overnight Health Care — Presented by Philip Morris International — Trump, Congress struggle for economic deal amid coronavirus threat | Pelosi rejects calls to shutter Capitol | Coronavirus emerges as 2020 flashpoint 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 CunninghamHouse chairwoman diagnosed with 'presumed' coronavirus infection Capitol officials extend suspension of tourist access until May Second Capitol Police officer tests positive for coronavirus 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 CrenshawHispanic Caucus campaign arm unveils non-Hispanic endorsements Lawmakers ask Trump administration to help Gulf oil and gas producers Annual Congressional Dinner pushed back to June amid coronavirus concerns 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 CramerInfrastructure bill gains new steam as coronavirus worsens GOP senators urge Saudi Arabia to leave OPEC GOP senator apologizes for tweet calling Pelosi 'retarded,' blames autocorrect MORE (R-N.D.) to more than $350,000 for Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnTrump must cut our dependence on Chinese drugs — whatever it takes Senate passes House's coronavirus aid bill, sending it to Trump Nikki Haley expected to endorse Loeffler in Senate race 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 MeadowsMeadows sets up coronavirus hotline for members of Congress The Hill's 12:30 Report: McConnell, Pelosi at odds over next relief bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump blends upbeat virus info and high US death forecast MORE’s (R-N.C.) House Freedom Fund, which has more than $3 million, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyDemocrats press Trump, GOP for funding for mail-in ballots Top GOP lawmakers push back on need for special oversight committee for coronavirus aid Stocks move little after record-breaking unemployment claims MORE’s (R-Calif.) Majority Committee PAC, with almost $2 million, and House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerProcedural politics: What just happened with the coronavirus bill? DC argues it is shortchanged by coronavirus relief bill Lysol, disinfecting wipes and face masks mark coronavirus vote in House MORE’s (D-Md.) AmeriPAC: The Fund for a Greater America, which has just over $1.5 million.

Sutton Dunwoodie contributed to this report.