Pac(k)ing in lobbyists, leaving out constituents

Pundits who bemoan the disaffection of American voters need look no further than the reporting last week by John Cheves on congressional leadership PACs.

The millions they control come almost exclusively from interests that lobby Congress for special treatment but have already maxed out on campaign contributions. Congress members, in turn, use a lot of the money to entertain themselves and their donors to keep the money flowing.

The difference between these political action committees and traditional shakedown schemes is that the PACS are, remarkably, legal.

Kentucky lawmakers, like their colleagues, use their PACs to entertain supporters, pay associates and family members and underwrite lavish weekends at exclusive resorts.

Leadership PACs were authorized by the Federal Election Commission in 1978 and at first were used only by senior members of Congress to solidify support by donating money to colleagues’ campaigns.

But their use and budgets have expanded rapidly. The $5 million donated to leadership PACs in the 1993-94 election cycle exploded to $62 million in the 2013-14 cycle.

Gone are the days when most of the money went to other candidates. Now it’s spent to host events to raise even more money and is often used to pay consulting fees to people in the lawmaker’s political organization, sometimes even family members.

The FEC has suggested Congress change leadership PAC rules to prohibit spending for personal benefit, as is the case with campaign funds. But Congress hasn’t seemed interested.

No surprise. As Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics told Cheves, “leadership PACs are little more than slush funds, really.” And where does the money come from? Very little from the districts the lawmakers represent.

“Most of the money comes from other PACs, usually run by an industry, corporation or union that lobbies Congress to get what it wants,” Cheves wrote.

Consider the $188,875 raised by Central Kentucky Congressman Andy Barr’s Building America’s Republican Representation PAC (BARRPAC) in the this cycle.

The bulk of it came from finance sector PACs eager to ingratiate themselves with Barr, who helps write the legislation that governs them as a member of the House Financial Services Committee.

Barr, R-Lexington, spent $32,000 from his PAC for tickets to the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup; Rep Hal Rogers’ PAC picked up a $40,168 tab at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, Fla. — far from the Republican’s Somerset home.

Rogers’ Help America’s Leaders PAC (HALPAC) raised $455,427 for the election cycle, including $20,500 from Rajant Corp. which last year won $300,000 in state tax incentives to open a facility at Morehead sponsored by Shaping Our Appalachian Region which Rogers helped found.

And so it goes.

More in tune with the original intent, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, gave 55 percent of his modest $40,400 to other candidates. The only Democrat in Kentucky’s delegation, Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, distributed 80 percent of his PAC’s $42,500 in political donations. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, gave 52 percent of the $1.3 million his PAC collected to candidates.

For the rest of our congressmen, though, the leadership PACs spend most of their money to perpetuate themselves.

Barr gave only 25 percent in political donations. Rogers’ PAC spent 67 percent on itself, and Sen. Rand Paul’s Reinventing A New Direction PAC (RANDPAC) spent a whopping 95 percent of $883,772 raised on what’s called operating expenses.

These chummy perpetual money machines support, what one critic called a “political lifestyle.”

Nick Nyhart, who works for the nonprofit The Every Voice Center trying to limit the role of money in politics, said this system “creates a norm in this insulated, entitled Washington bubble that is far from the norms of everyday Americans, who are just trying to make their rent payments and put food on the table.”

Even those who don’t worry about paying the rent or the mortgage typically live far from the world of $20,000 donations and $40,000 golf weekends. That means they also live far from the relaxed atmospheres that can open a congressman’s ears, and sympathies.

One of the most consistent findings in polls is that voters, regardless of political affiliation, are distressed by the influence of money on politics.

No wonder.