New research from Issue One and Campaign Legal Center shows that scores of lawmakers are not using the bulk of the money they raise in their leadership PACs to assist other candidates, political groups, or their parties — the intended purpose of leadership PACs when they were approved by the Federal Election Commission more than 40 years ago.
While most members of Congress primarily use their leadership PACs to make political contributions, Issue One and Campaign Legal Center found that the leadership PACs of 120 members of Congress spent less than 50% on politics between January 2019 and December 2020 — roughly one of every five members of Congress.
Moreover, 43 members of Congress spent less than 25% on politics during this time. And a handful of these members spent at least five figures without ever contributing a penny to any local, state, or federal candidates, parties, or political groups. In contrast, during the same period, the typical member of Congress’ leadership PAC spent 70% on politics.
Where did the money go instead? Far too many politicians appear to be using leadership PACs to enjoy perks of lavish living that are beyond the rest of most Americans, including meals at fancy restaurants, trips to elite resorts, rounds of golf at premier courses, and more.
Issue One and Campaign Legal Center found that lawmakers whose leadership PACs spent less than half of their funds on politics between January 2019 and December 2020 collectively spent approximately $2 million at hotels and resorts, $950,000 on airfare, $220,000 at sporting events and concerts, $150,000 at steakhouses, and $130,000 at golf courses and country clubs, among other things.
“Leadership PACs represent the worst of pay-to-play political giving,” said Issue One Founder and CEO Nick Penniman. “People of conscience in Congress and at the Federal Election Commission must rein in the abuse of leadership PACs and prohibit leadership PACs from being slush funds for politicians to pursue lavish lifestyles.”
Adav Noti, senior director for trial litigation and chief of staff at Campaign Legal Center, added: “Too many members of Congress are using leadership PACs to enrich themselves. When candidates use funds given by donors for personal expenses, the risk for corruption is heightened — it raises concerns that wealthy special interests, expecting favors in return, are aiding what is essentially a slush fund that allows an elected official to live a lavish lifestyle.”
Issue One and Campaign Legal Center have urged both Congress and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to address the abuse of leadership PACs.
In 2018, Issue One and Campaign Legal Center submitted a rulemaking petition to the FEC, asking the Commission to clarify the regulations of the personal use of leadership PAC funds, but, to date, that petition remains pending.
For its part, Congress would simply need to make minimal revisions to existing language to confirm that the personal use ban does, in fact, apply to leadership PACs.
The frequently given explanation that lavish spending is necessary for political fundraising rings hollow when just a fraction of the money raised by some leadership PACs goes toward contributions to other candidates and political groups.
Instead, such spending gives the impression that some politicians are simply raising money at one luxurious location to pay for the next fundraiser at the next fancy destination — creating an endless fundraising cycle at posh restaurants and resorts.
A few of the politicians whose leadership PACs spent less than 25% on politics during this period included:
Rep. George Holding (R-NC), whose leadership PAC spent roughly $202,000 during this two-year period, with just 2% of its spending aiding other candidates, political parties, and political groups. The bulk of his leadership PAC’s spending went toward airfare, restaurants, hotels, car services, and exclusive members-only clubs in the United States and abroad, including nearly $11,000 at the East India Club, a private, men-only club in London.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), whose leadership PAC spent roughly $990,000 during this two-year period, with just 12% of its spending aiding other candidates, political parties, and political groups. This was the smallest percentage of any senator that did not retire in 2020. Instead, Paul’s leadership PAC spent significant sums on dining, lodging, and transportation, spending $14,000 on lodging alone, including visits to some of the top resorts in the country such as The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, and the Salamander Resort in Virginia.
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI), whose leadership PAC spent roughly $320,000 during this two-year period, with just 12% of its spending aiding other candidates, political parties, and political groups. All the while, her leadership PAC spent freely on food, beverages, travel, and events. Moore’s leadership PAC spent around $32,000 on meals and catering, and it spent $9,000 for event tickets through Live Nation, StubHub, and Ticketmaster.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), whose leadership PAC spent roughly $590,000 during this two-year period, with just 17% of its spending aiding other candidates, political parties, and political groups. While much of this spending went toward consultants, salaries, and administrative expenses, Gottheimer’s leadership PAC also footed sizable bills for meals and transportation.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), whose leadership PAC spent roughly $2.2 million during this two-year period, with just 18% of its spending aiding other candidates, political parties, and political groups. While much of this spending went toward digital advertising expenses and consultants, Cruz’s leadership PAC also footed sizable bills for transportation and lodging, including approximately $59,000 on airfare and $20,000 on hotels throughout the country, including five-star establishments such as The Breakers, in Palm Beach, Florida, and the Cloister at Sea Island in Georgia.
Curious about how a particular member of Congress stacks up? Issue One and Campaign Legal Center included an appendix at the end of this new report detailing all lawmakers’ leadership PAC spending and the portion spent on politics between January 2019 and December 2020.