WASHINGTON, D.C.- They’ve been called “Political Slush Funds”, pots of money elected officials can use to pay for tickets to sporting events, meals at five-star restaurants and trips overseas.
They’re known as Leadership Political Actions Committees, or Leadership PACs for short, and critics want reforms to limit their spending.
Most people realize politicians raise money, but many don’t know about Leadership PAC. They are separate pots of money with different rules. Some say they’ve gotten out of control.
With its four pools, two golf courses and fish tank bar, The Breakers Palm Beach is the kind of resort where you can really soak it in.
This is where Sen. John Boozman (R-Arkansas) goes to get away from the bustle of Washington to enjoy the good life with his political donors.
Over the last two years, Sen. Boozman dropped more than $40,000 during two weekend fundraisers at The Breakers.
Over the same period, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) spent more than $12,000 for donor events at swanky D.C. restaurants.
He has a hold for the Ritz Carlton in Saint Thomas, where he plans to hold a fundraiser next year.
All the spending comes from the two lawmakers Leadership Political Action Committees.
First set up 40 years ago, Leadership PACs provided a way for elected officials to raise money and dole it out to other like-minded politicians and candidates.
Critics say they’ve strayed far from their original purpose.
“The rules on the books say Leadership PAC money can be spent for almost anything,” says Michael Beckel with Issue One.
Beckel’s organization, Issue One, conducted a nationwide study that found lawmakers around the country use the money for everything from overseas trips and golf memberships to luxury hotels and fancy restaurants.
Ellen Weintraub is the Vice Chair of the Federal Elections Commission. She has spent years trying to rein in spending by Leadership PACs.
“I don’t think their intent is to subsidize the lifestyle of the people who are receiving the money,” says Weintraub.
The two lawmakers say all the spending is a necessary part of the effort to raise money for causes they support. Over the last three election cycles, records show Boozman and Cotton gave away less than half of their Leadership PAC money to other candidates, PACs or parties.
“I think it is legitimate to take a look at how much money is being spent on overhead,” Weintraub says.
Both Cotton and Boozman declined to talk about their Leadership Pacs on camera, but in conversations, officials defended the fundraising efforts.
They says fundraising events are not vacation and often include busy schedules of meetings with Arkansas business and community leaders.
Former FEC Commissioner Hans Von Spakovsky says: In order to raise money, first, you gotta spend it.
“If you’re organizing a political fundraiser, you’re not gonna do it at the motel down the street off the interstate,” says Spakovsky.
Spakovsky says Leadership PACs are an expression of political free speech, and there’s nothing secret about the spending.
“I think all the critics of this show that they really don’t trust the American people to make their own decisions on the candidates that they wanna vote for,” Spakovsky says.
Beckel says the Leadership PACs need more regulation.
“If you’ve got additional pots of money that a special interest or wealthy donor knows that they can give to curry favor, that’s one more potential avenue for corruption in the process,” says Beckel.
Weintraub says she can’t muster the votes on the FEC to limit their spending.
“I coule write a scathing statement about it,” Weintrab says. “But I couldn’t actually punish anybody.”
Change would likely require new laws passed by the very people taking advantage of the status quo: members of Congress.
Again, none of this is illegal. This type of use is widespread among federal officials in Washington. Some would argue that’s the problem