FEC Considers Barring Politicians From Using Leadership PACs as Slush Funds

The Federal Election Commission wants to hear from the public about whether lawmakers should be allowed to spend money from their PACs on golf clubs and luxury resorts.

FEC Considers Barring Politicians From Using Leadership PACs as Slush Funds
Photo from the 2002 US Senior Open at Caves Valley Gold Club in Baltimore, Maryland. In January 2017, Pete Sessions' leadership PAC spent $20,000 on a club membership for the congressman.

On Monday, the Federal Election Commission announced that it is seeking public comment on a proposed rule that would stop politicians from spending political contributions on personal expenses such as golf club fees, luxury resort stays, and fine dining.

If the FEC amends the regulation in question, it would explicitly add a type of fundraising vehicle known as leadership PACs to the list of campaign funds that cannot be spent for “personal use.” In the past five years, according to a report released in July by the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center, lawmakers have spent $871,000 on golf clubs, $741,000 at St. Regis hotels around the country, and, $252,000 at Charlie Palmer Steak in D.C.

“Past inaction by the FEC has allowed lawmakers from both parties to use leadership PAC funds for country club dues and Disneyland vacations, and it is about time that the agency does something about it,” Brendan Fischer, program director of the Campaign Legal Center, tells Sludge. “This rulemaking petition presents an opportunity for the FEC to use its authority to prevent lawmakers from using leadership PACs as slush funds.”

The FEC has had the opportunity in the past to explicitly state whether leadership PAC funds can be used for personal use. After a 2013 60 Minutes investigation, the FEC acted and barred politicians from spending leadership PAC funds at their personal whims. But the clarity was short-lived. In 2015, the FEC reversed itself and left the door open to spending leadership PAC contributions on personal expenses. Campaign Legal Center filed this petition with the FEC in July to settle the issue once and for all.

Leadership PACs were created to allow politicians to fundraise for the purpose of then contributing money to other politicians, thereby establishing themselves as leaders within their party. But for the last five years, less than half of all the funds spent by leadership PACs have actually gone to other political candidates.

Campaign Legal Center’s report, produced in conjunction with the non-partisan reform group Issue One found that “leadership PACs collectively spent more than $160 million in the 2016 cycle, but only around $74 million of that total—less than half—went toward contributions to other federal candidates or political committees.”

That fact, combined with egregious examples of personal spending, including $614,000 spent in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, has caused the FEC to consider Campaign Legal Center’s petition. Now the agency wants to hear from the public. The FEC is accepting public comment on its website for the next 60 days, until November 16.