Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA)—on the ballot for reelection in his San Diego district—used campaign donations to pay for golf balls, groceries, private-school tuition for his children and an airfare for the family’s pet rabbit, according to the corruption charges federal prosecutors brought against him last month.
Perhaps he stands alone in allegedly breaking the letter of the law, but he is far from the only lawmaker using money from donors to subsidize a personal lifestyle and access luxury travel and golf resorts.
The real scandal may be that it’s perfectly legal when done through a so-called leadership PAC, or political action committee. Almost every member of Congress has one (94 senators and two-thirds of the House), according to a report released by watchdog groups Issue One and Campaign Legal Center: “All Expenses Paid: How Leadership PACs Became Politicians’ Preferred Ticket to Luxury Living” (PDF).
Over the past five years, from 2013 through the first quarter of 2018, lawmakers dipped into these leadership PACs for $871,000 in golf related expenses, $614,000 in travel to the the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico (and it wasn’t for hurricane relief), $765,000 for stays at West Virginia’s Greenbrier hotel, and $361,000 at Ritz-Carlton hotels.
In the last five years, lawmakers spent at least $469,000 on Walt Disney hotels, theme parks and restaurants.
This spending is not unique to one party, as Republicans and Democrats alike push dollars through a loophole in the law: that while standard campaign contributions can’t be spent on personal things, there’s no bar on doing so with money sent to leadership PACs so that, as the report notes, lawmakers “blur lines between official and personal activity while schmoozing at venues far behind the eyes, as well as the pocketbooks, of most of their constituents.”
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) could easily close this loophole by imposing the same “personal use” restriction on leadership PACs that is in place for campaign funds. But the FEC is divided and toothless, and Congress is not about to detail its own gravy train.
Leadership PACs began innocently enough in 1978 when California Rep. Henry Waxman, one of the post-Watergate reformers, asked the FEC for permission to create a PAC that would allow lawmakers to raise money and donate to their colleagues and other political committees to build support as they climb the ladder to leadership.
In the 1980s, these new pots of cash helped build a system where ambitious politicians could buy their way to the top. In 1994, Texas Republican Tom DeLay, running for majority whip, distributed $2 million from his leadership PAC to his colleagues. He easily won the position over Republican Robert Walker, who made just one thousand-dollar contribution.
But now just 16 percent of the money that goes into leadership PACS is directed to other candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The report notes that less than 7 percent of Republican Senator Rand Paul’s leadership PAC money goes toward other candidates or committees. In the current 2018 election cycle, he has spent $11,043 on restaurants in Italy and Malta, $4,493 on limousine service in Rome, and $1,904 at St. George Lycabettus Hotel in Athens, a five-star hotel with “breathtaking panoramic views.”
Donors to leadership PACs have a much higher contribution limit and deeper pockets to court favor with an elected official. A U.S. senator serving a six-year term may only accept $5,400 from an individual donor to his or her campaign committee, but can take $30,000 from the same individual for their leadership PAC—and spend it freely on themselves.
Leadership PACs get little scrutiny so they remain under the radar, epitomizing the Washington swamp. Much of the spending is done under the guise of fundraising, financing one high-dollar event to underwrite another. “Is a ‘fundraising’ trip to a Caribbean resort justifiable if the money raised is used to fund a politician’s next ‘fundraising’ event at a luxury hotel in Las Vegas? Surely most constituents would say no,” the report observes.
Again, this is legal and both sides do it, but the examples that leap off the page in the report happen to be Republicans, perhaps because they’re in the majority. Rep. Devin Nunes “NEW PAC” reported spending $42,741 on catering, site rentals, hotels and meals in Las Vegas, including $3,069 for food and room usage at Chat House, a high-end seafood restaurant with a 75,000 gallon exotic fish aquarium, and $4,734 at Del Frisco’s steakhouse which features a “unique James Bond Table.” On March 9 of this year, NEW PAC’s filing with the FEC listed $7,229 at seven different restaurants and hotels in Las Vegas.
Rand Paul’s “Reinventing a New Direction RAND PAC” listed $337 spent on apparel at Men’s Warehouse in Omaha in 2014, and $438 on apparel at Allen Edmonds on Madison Avenue in New York City. RAND PAC also spent $201 at TJ Maxx on travel luggage in March 2015. In 2017, RAND PAC spent $1,575 at BLT Prime, the restaurant in the Trump Hotel in Washington, and $407 at the Trump Golf Club in Virginia.
Golf Club memberships seem to be an entitlement on Capitol Hill. Few members of Congress are without them and most would probably argue they’re essential in today’s scramble for dollars and access. Texas Rep Pete Sessions “PETE PAC” lists “membership for P Sessions” in a Maryland golf club in January 2017 with an expenditure of $21,240, and in January 2018 with a $19,956 expenditure. Annual dues are $20,000.
Lawmakers can write off just about everything. Texas Senator John Cornyn’s “Alamo PAC” listed a $111 charge for a “hunting license” in April 2015 paid to the Virginia Dept of Game and Inland Fisheries. California Rep. Paul Cook’s “Semper Fi” PAC picked up his $375 membership dues to the NRA in March 2016.
The report by these two government reform advocacy groups calls on the FEC and/or Congress to impose a “personal use” ban on leadership PACs that would make this spending illegal. That won’t happen without a major scandal, if then. Voters think lawmakers are out of touch and favor the rich. They’re right.