“They’re becoming so prevalent now, they’re really a misnomer,” said Michael Toner, a former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission. “You don’t need to be a leader in any sense of the word.”
In the 1998 election cycle, there were 120 leadership PACs, according to records from the Center for Responsive Politics. Today, there are more than 450. Combined, leadership PACs spent more than $141 million in the last election cycle, including more than $46 million in direct campaign contributions, according to CRP data.
The rules on how lawmakers can use such auxiliary accounts are loose. The only real limitation is that they cannot spend the money to directly benefit their own reelection. But they can hire political strategists and finance a political operation. Or they can bundle up contributions and hand them out to curry favor with congressional colleagues. Those who raise enough money do both.
Last cycle, 219 leadership PACs reported spending at least $100,000.
While leadership PACs have been steadily growing in popularity for years, Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., said the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which opened the door further for big-spending outside groups, has made the pressure to fundraise even more acute.
“Now, in any race, people can come in with money of any amount from an undisclosed source. That has clearly increased the pressure on finding ways to counter that,” said Levin, who spent $442,000 from his leadership PAC last cycle.
What makes leadership PACs especially appealing to lawmakers is that they allow them to tap a donor who has already given the maximum $5,200 to their reelection campaign. Such a donor can legally give another $5,000 to the same lawmaker’s leadership PAC.
“The one thing I think we can all agree on: If there were shared-contribution limits, there wouldn’t be nearly as many leadership PACs,” said Toner, who served on the FEC from 2002 to 2007 and was appointed by President George W. Bush. “That’s just the reality.”
While lawmakers can’t spend the money they raise to boost their own reelection, they can ship it off to colleagues in need. Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign, which advocates for a rewrite of the nation’s campaign finance laws, likened it to taking out political insurance in a “mutual aid society.”
“It’s an incumbent’s self-protection committee,” Nyhart said.
Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, described the ongoing fundraising arms race in Congress this way: “When people are trying to destroy you, you better fight fire with fire—or get burned up.”
The rub for an average voter, Nyhart said, is that the whole structure of leadership PACs caters to the wealthy. “That money is not coming from Jane and Joe Smith back in the home state; it’s coming from the special interests,” he said.