A third of progressives in Congress’s freshman class have formed leadership PACs, a move that has helped lawmakers raise their profile within the party but also drawn scrutiny from outside liberal groups decrying the influence of money in politics.
Seven out of the 21 first-year lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) have leadership PACs, compared with three at this point in the previous Congress.
The PACs, often funded by corporations, trade associations and labor unions, can be used by lawmakers to donate to other candidates and pay for expenses that are typically off-limits to campaigns and congressional offices.
And that’s not sitting well with some groups that are otherwise supportive of progressive lawmakers.
“Leadership PACs have essentially become slush funds and are one of the most egregious loopholes in campaign finance laws,” Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink, told The Hill. “No progressive candidates should have one. Instead, they should focus on grassroots fundraising, while simultaneously working for publicly funded elections and for overturning Citizens United.”
Any lawmaker, former lawmaker, or political figure can form a leadership PAC. And having one is considered a necessity for climbing the party ranks, for both Democrats and Republicans.
Rep. Deb HaalandDebra HaalandProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising This week: House to vote on Turkey sanctions bill The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Better Medicare Alliance – Trump’s impeachment plea to Republicans MORE (N.M.) is the freshman CPC member with the most in her leadership PAC. She has $20,000 in total receipts, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
She’s followed by Rep. Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising Top Sanders adviser defends Pressley’s Warren endorsement Panel: Tulsi ends Joy Behar live on the View MORE (Mass.), with more than $12,000, Rep. Steven HorsfordSteven Alexander HorsfordProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising Mass shootings have hit 158 House districts so far this year Pelosi announces launch of formal impeachment inquiry into Trump MORE (Nev.) at $7,500, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising Sanders campaign names Hispanic activist Iowa co-chair Top Sanders adviser defends Pressley’s Warren endorsement MORE (N.Y.) with more than $5,000.
The freshman CPC lawmakers’ offices did not respond to requests for comment.
While leadership PACs are not associated with their own campaigns, they are used to pay for various campaign-related items.
During the 2018 cycle, politicians used leadership PACs to pay for golf clubs, resorts, NFL games and international travel, according to a letter Issue One and Campaign Legal Center sent to the Federal Election Commission in May.
For the World Series in D.C. last month, Sens. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising Lawmakers wager local booze, favorite foods in World Series bets José Andrés: Food served in the Capitol came from undocumented immigrants MORE‘s (D-Va.) and Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising Cotton: Trump could have US forces impose ‘world of hurt’ on Mexican cartels TikTok faces lawmaker anger over China ties MORE‘s (R-Ark.) leadership PACs were accepting $5,000 donations for tickets to a game.
The vast majority of members of Congress have leadership PACs, including three lawmakers who have introduced legislation to curtail them.
Reps. Kathleen RiceKathleen Maura RiceProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising Marijuana industry donations to lawmakers surge in 2019: analysis Pelosi backers feel vindicated after tumultuous stretch MORE (D-N.Y.), Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to testify on Libra | Extremists find home on Telegram app | Warren blasts Facebook for not removing anti-Biden ad | California outlaws facial recognition in police body cameras | China rips US tech sanctions House Democrats introduce new legislation to combat foreign election interference MORE (D-Wash.) and Mike GallagherMichael (Mike) John GallagherProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising Hillicon Valley: GOP lawmakers offer election security measure | FTC Dem worries government is ‘captured’ by Big Tech | Lawmakers condemn Apple over Hong Kong censorship Lawmakers condemn Apple, Activision Blizzard over censorship of Hong Kong protesters MORE (R-Wis.) have introduced the Political Accountability and Transparency Act, which would impose restrictions on the use of campaign funds for personal use to leadership PACs funds.
Not all progressive groups are opposed to the PACs that have become almost ubiquitous on Capitol Hill.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), argued that the freshman CPC members with leadership PACs have strong grassroots fundraising bases. He also noted that unlike super PACs, the leadership ones have limitations on contributions.
“Big-money SuperPACs, where billionaires make unlimited donations to flood the zone, represent corruption in our democracy,” Green said. “Small-dollar political action committees like MoveOn, the PCCC, Justice Democrats, and these grassroots-funded leadership PACs by progressives like [Ocasio-Cortez] and [Rep.] Ilhan [Omar (D-Minn.)] are how workers and grandmas unite to take back our democracy together. One is the poison, the other is the antidote.”
Individuals can give up to $5,000 per year to a leadership PAC, compared to the $2,800 an individual can contribute to a campaign. That $5,000 cap is also the limit for corporate and trade association PACs, as well as for candidate committees and party committees.
The centrist Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of centrist Democrats, has only two freshmen with leadership PACs. Ten freshmen are in the coalition, which consists of 26 members overall. The CPC has 99 members.
Rep. Mikie SherrillRebecca (Mikie) Michelle SherrillProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising House Dems introduce bill to fight social media disinformation CNN faces backlash for video highlighting white congresswomen as impeachment leaders MORE (D-N.J.) has the most of the freshman Blue Dogs, with $6,000 in total receipts.
Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), a co-chair of the Blue Dogs, formed a leadership PAC in January but has not yet raised any money for it.
Blue Dog member Rep. Joe CunninghamJoseph CunninghamProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising How centrist Dems learned to stop worrying and love impeachment Democrats, GOP dig in for public phase of impeachment battle MORE (D-S.C.), does not have a leadership PAC and his spokesperson said he has no plans to do so.
“He hasn’t taken a single dime from PACs or special interest groups. He’s accountable to the people of the Lowcountry and no one else,” spokeswoman Rebecca Drago said, referring to the region in South Carolina that Cunningham represents.
Of the House freshmen, 47 out of 89 have leadership PACs — 24 Democrats and 23 Republicans.
Other freshman offices told The Hill they are in the process of forming leadership PACs.
Rep. Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising Texas investigating parental dispute into whether 7-year-old is transgender Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers unleash on Zuckerberg | House passes third election interference bill | Online extremism legislation advances in House | Google claims quantum computing breakthrough MORE (R-Texas) has the most in his leadership PAC out of all House freshmen, with just under $58,000. He is closely followed by Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), who has more than $56,000.
All nine of the Senate freshmen have leadership PACs and collectively have in excess of $1.4 million. Those amounts ranged from $5,000 for Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerTrump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden Progressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising Senators push for deal on impeachment trial rules to avoid political brawl MORE (R-N.D.) to more than $350,000 for Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising On The Money: US paid record .1B in tariffs in September | Dems ramp up oversight of ‘opportunity zones’ | Judge hints at letting House lawsuit over Trump tax returns proceed Overnight Defense: Trump, Erdogan confirm White House meeting | Public impeachment hearings set for next week | Top defense appropriator retiring MORE (R-Tenn.), much of which she carried over from when she was in the House.
The biggest leadership PACs on Capitol Hill belong to Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising Top diplomat says Giuliani’s ‘campaign of lies’ took down veteran ambassador Overnight Defense: Pentagon says Syrian oil revenue going to Kurdish forces | GOP chair accuses Dems of using Space Force as leverage in wall fight | Dems drop plans to seek Bolton testimony MORE’s (R-N.C.) House Freedom Fund, which has more than $3 million, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising Republicans consider putting Jordan, Meadows on Intelligence for impeachment RNC paid about K for Trump to attend UFC match: report MORE’s (R-Calif.) Majority Committee PAC, with almost $2 million, and House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising CR discussions veer toward December: Shelby The Democrats’ generational battle MORE’s (D-Md.) AmeriPAC: The Fund for a Greater America, which has just over $1.5 million.
Sutton Dunwoodie contributed to this report.