Leadership PACs a Ticket to Luxury Lawmaking

The Republican Majority Fund leadership PAC has paid for a number of high-priced golf outings for Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), right, here speaking with Brenda Wilson during his runoff election last year.
The Republican Majority Fund leadership PAC has paid for a number of high-priced golf outings for Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), right, here speaking with Brenda Wilson during his runoff election last year. (By John Amis -- Associated Press)
By Marcus Stern and Jennifer LaFleur
Sunday, September 27, 2009

When it comes to golf, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) has champagne taste.

In California, he's putted at Pebble Beach, where a round of golf costs $495. In Florida, he's driven the ball down the fairways of the Boca Raton Resort, with its signature island green on the 18th hole. These are among the dozen premier resorts where Chambliss played golf in 2007 and 2008 at a cost of a quarter of a million dollars. Yet Chambliss is hardly rich. His net worth is between $181,006 and $415,000, according to his 2007 financial disclosure report, ranking him 91st in the Senate in terms of wealth.

The congressman pays for his golf through a political leadership fund, the Republican Majority Fund, which took in $692,618 during the 2008 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Almost all of it came from lobbyists, political action committees and corporate leaders.

The public might be forgiven for thinking the days are gone when lobbyists and special interests could pay for a lawmaker's cross-country golf outings. After all, both the House and Senate in 2007 responded to a spate of scandals by banning members of Congress from accepting gifts of any value from lobbyists or the companies that hire them.

But those reforms preserved a major loophole: leadership PACs, which have far looser rules and get far less scrutiny than campaign committees. When leadership PACs began to crop up in the 1970s, only a few rising stars in Congress had them. Now, 70 percent of the members do. So do a dozen former members.

In the past three election cycles, lobbyists and special interests poured $355 million into these funds, making them the second-largest source of political money for sitting members of Congress.

Legally, lawmakers are free to spend this money pretty much as they wish -- as long as it's not on their own campaigns.

Lobbyists and lawmakers can -- and do -- use it to travel together, to ride snowmobiles in Montana's Big Sky Country and to go deep-sea fishing in the Florida Keys. The lobbyists don't pay the costs directly. They contribute to the leadership PAC, which then pays the lawmaker's resort and travel bills.

Big Spending

What separates leadership PACs from campaign committees is that lawmakers are supposed to pass along the bulk of the money to other members of their party for their campaigns. That way, lawmakers with leadership PACs can earn their beneficiaries' support when it comes time to divvy up committee chairmanships and other party leadership posts.

But of the $112 million that leadership PACs spent during the two-year campaign cycle that led up to the 2008 elections, less than half was passed on to candidates or party committees, according to a ProPublica analysis of Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The rest paid for entertainment, administrative costs, fundraising and other categories that are so vague that it's impossible to know for sure how the money was spent.

Leadership PACs have paid for visits to Churchill Downs, Disney World and the Country Music Hall of Fame. They've paid for funerals, flowers and farewell parties. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) used $64,500 from his PAC to commission a portrait of himself. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid of Nevada used more than $57,000 from his PAC to entertain at Las Vegas casinos. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) spent more than $47,000 from his PAC on New York Yankees and New York Giants tickets.

All this is legal, even if it appears to make a mockery of the 2007 ethics reforms and the contribution limits at the very heart of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.

The FEC, which enforces federal campaign finance laws, has no rule against politicians using the money for personal purposes. Senate ethics rules don't even mention leadership PACs. The Senate interprets that silence to mean its ethics committee has no jurisdiction over leadership PACs. The House, on the other hand, extends the same personal spending rules it applies to campaign committees -- but there are no known instances in which the policy has been enforced.

'An Incumbent Racket'

Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, says leadership PACs should be abolished.

"But that's going to be very difficult because so many members of Congress have them now," McGehee said. "Because they're such useful political slush funds, money that a politician controls totally with very few rules governing how they're used, it's very difficult to find members who want to take that on."

Lobbyist Jim Ervin might bristle at McGehee's use of the phrase "slush funds," but he seems to agree in spirit.

"I think that it's more than appropriate for Senator Chambliss to do whatever he wants with the leadership PAC money. Certainly I think golf is completely acceptable," he said. Ervin and two of his clients -- defense contractors Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics -- put $30,000 into Chambliss's leadership PAC in the last election cycle.

Former FEC commissioner Bradley A. Smith says leadership PACs give incumbents an unfair advantage because challengers typically can't raise the maximum amount of money allowed for their campaign committees, much less for a leadership PAC. "For the most part it's really kind of an incumbent racket," he said.

Leadership PACS file disclosure forms with the FEC that are so cursory that lawmakers don't have to disclose who contributed at a PAC fundraiser, the day the event was held or how much money was raised.

Chambliss's leadership PAC ran up a $50,394 bill at the Ritz-Carlton Naples on Jan. 25, 2008. The only note of explanation was the stated purpose, "PAC EVENT/LODGING/BANQUET/GOLF."

"The problem is that sometimes it's hard to tell the personal from the political," said FEC Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub. Only a quarter of the more than $750,000 that Chambliss's PAC spent during the 2008 cycle -- about $200,000 -- went to help GOP candidates. The rest went for golf, including payments to resorts and transportation -- a private jet on one occasion and limos on another. In July, ABC News cameras captured shots of Chambliss and other lawmakers playing golf at the five-star Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

Chambliss declined to be interviewed but his communications director, Bronwyn Lance Chester, defended the golf outings.

"Every fundraising event Sen. Chambliss has held has been appropriately conducted, all expenses have been closely scrutinized and all reporting has been accurate," she said.

ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. ProPublica Director of Research Lisa Schwartz and the Brian Ross Investigative Unit at ABC contributed to this report.

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