WASHINGTON-For a crowd that so adamantly decries the role of big money in politics, Connecticut’s congressional delegation sure does a lot of extra political fundraising. And some of them do it with considerable style to boot.
Take Rep. John Larson’s weekend excursion last spring, open to lobbyists and other deep-pocketed donors, in California’s Napa Valley, where the agenda was a perfect mix of business and pleasure. On the schedule: a bocce tournament, a vineyard tour with lunch and dinner, and a legislative update from Larson, the 4th ranking Democrat in the House and Connecticut’s 1st District representative.
Then there was Larson’s June invitation to a “New England Summer Golf, Spa and Concert Retreat,” a weekend-getaway at Mohegan Sun casino, where attendees could “learn to gamble from the pros” and take in a concert featuring James Taylor and Carole King.
These events didn’t benefit Larson’s personal re-election bid. Instead, they were fundraisers for “Synergy PAC,” Larson’s leadership political action committee, a special second campaign account that he can use to take in additional political donations and then dole out the money to other House Democrats.
“It’s a way to support people who share your goals and your vision,” said Chris Barnes, Larson’s campaign manager. “Leaders are expected to raise money and give it to the more vulnerable members. It relieves them of having to spend even more time on the phone [fundraising], so they can function more effectively as members of Congress.”
But leadership PACs aren’t just for congressional leaders. And Larson, the lead sponsor of a campaign finance bill that would provide candidates access to public funding if they swear off PAC donations and raise more small contributions, is not the only Connecticut lawmaker to take advantage of these extra campaign accounts.
Of the state’s 7 House and Senate members, only one–Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District–does not have a leadership PAC. Larson’s PAC is by far the most prodigious, however, raising more than $500,000 so far this election.
Such accounts have become increasingly widespread in recent years among lawmakers seeking to raise their own profile and power in Congress. “These types of committees have grown in popularity because it gives lawmakers another avenue of influence, another account through which they may raise money and also dole out money,” said David Levinthal, of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. “So long as you have some minimal stature, and sometimes not even that, you can open one of these up and go from there.”
Barnes said that leadership PACs often help put members on the right “trajectory,” even if they are back-benchers when they first set up such accounts. “You need the leadership PAC to help you get into leadership,” Barnes said. In the circular ways of Washington, he noted that the PACs help aspiring leaders donate to their friends, which helps those friends win re-election and stick around to support a benefactor’s climb up the congressional ladder.
So it’s no surprise then that Connecticut’s congressional delegation has jumped into the game. In addition to Larson’s, the PACs range from 5th District Democrat Chris Murphy’s MURPHPAC, which has raise about $12,000 so far this election cycle, to 3rd District Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s Committee for a Democratic Future, which has raised about $155,000
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, has the Husky PAC, Sen. Joseph Lieberman has his Reuniting Our Country PAC, and retiring Sen. Chris Dodd has the CHRIS PAC. Each of them has raised about $55,000 through these second committees so far this election.
Overall, there are now more than 300 such PACs run by current or former lawmakers, and they’ve funneled an additional $24.5 million into the political system, according to the Center’s calculations.
Critics like Levinthal say they allow lawmakers to “double dip”-with donors giving the maximum contribution to a House or Senate member’s regular re-election account, and then writing a second check to their leadership PAC. “It can [allow a donor] to double their footprint within a politician’s overall operation,” he said.
For example, United Technologies Corp.’s PAC gave $10,000, the legal maximum, to Larson’s re-election account, and then another $5,000 to his Synergy PAC. Similarly, General Electric’s PAC gave $7,000 to his campaign committee and $5,000 to his PAC. The American Federation of Teachers union gave $10,000 to DeLauro’s personal campaign committee and another $10,000 to her PAC.
Most lawmakers defend the PACs as legitimate tools of the current system, even as they reiterate their desire to change campaign finance laws to reduce the role of such donations.
“The expansion of leadership PACs is an unfortunate consequence of the growing expense of campaigns,” said Murphy, who opened MURPHPAC last spring as he began his second term in Congress. “Now that an average House campaign is costing close to $2 or $3 million, rank-and-file members and the party leadership are both trying to find new ways to raise money and help candidates in need.”
DeLauro said she “doesn’t worry” about the criticism of leadership PACs, adding that she’s been “very straightforward” about using her PAC to help elect and protect the House Democratic majority.
On top of the $893,000 she has raised so far this election for her own campaign, DeLauro has raked in another $155,000 for the PAC. (Her events are decidedly more low-brow than Larson’s, such as the pizza-and-beer party she hosted in March at her Washington home.) So far this election, DeLauro had directed much of her PAC money to paying for invitation-only public policy dinners in Washington, not to writing checks to vulnerable House Democrats.
DeLauro said those policy dinners provide an important forum for House Democrats to debate new ideas and generate fresh approaches to the nation’s problems-and as are important to bolstering Democrats’ election prospects as any direct campaign contributions she could make.
“These are very serious policy discussions and are very highly regarded by members,” DeLauro said of the events, which she hosts several times a month at her Washington home. They often feature top academics and “political thinkers,” she said. Recent featured speakers, for example, include Elizabeth Warren, a top White House candidate to run the new consumer protection bureau, and Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist.
The dinners help explain why, of the $138,000 DeLauro’s PAC has spent so far this election, about half of it–$74,000–has gone to a D.C. catering company, while she’s only given about $10,000 to other House candidates.
Murphy, for his part, has only netted about $12,000 through his PAC. But the 5th District congressman has raised nearly $1 million for vulnerable House Democrats in his role as co-chair of the so-called “Frontline Program,” an initiative of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that assists incumbents facing the toughest races.
Last year, DCCC Chairman Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland asked Murphy to serve as a mentor and fundraiser for the slate of 40 Democrats the party tagged as most vulnerable. Murphy said he agreed because it was a way for him to help new members just getting started in Congress–and to ensure that the Democrats have a shot at keeping control of the House. Murphy said his work with the DCCC has ramped down considerably this year, as he has focused more on his own re-election bid.
He acknowledged that all his fundraising puts him and other advocates of campaign reform in a “strange position” of being both critics of, and active participants in, the system. But he and others said they wouldn’t swear off such accounts as long as Republicans were using them too.
“If I stopped raising money, I wouldn’t be around to vote on the bill to end the current system of campaign finance,” said Murphy, referring to his support for creating a federal public financing system that limits the role of PACs and other big donors.
Indeed, Barnes’, the Larson campaign aide, said his boss’s push for such legislation would “bring much more fundamental change to the system” than getting rid of leadership PACs.