Politics & Government

The FEC could ban Congress from using leadership PACs for personal use

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, walks out the White House in Washington, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, to speak with reporters after a meeting with President Donald Trump.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, walks out the White House in Washington, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, to speak with reporters after a meeting with President Donald Trump. AP file

The Federal Election Commission is for the first time seriously considering banning members of Congress from using any political donations for personal use.

Its action was spurred by a report from watchdog groups that found “often under the guise of fundraising activity, officeholders and candidates overwhelmingly use leadership PAC money to pay for, among other things, five-star luxury resort stays, expensive dinners, trips to theme parks, golf outings, tickets to Broadway shows and sporting events, and international travel.”

Past use of leadership PACs that could come under review in the future if this became a rule include:

  • Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California, spending $15,000 on Celtics tickets in 2017.
  • Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, spending $11,000 at restaurants in Italy and Malta in 2017.
  • Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., spending nearly $40,000 between 2015 and 2018 on fundraising at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort.
  • Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, spending $111 on a hunting license in 2015.

Kelsey Cooper, Paul communications director, said the senator’s expenses at restaurants were “a fundraising expense for events that made a large amount of money for RANDPAC.

“Every charity and political cause has fundraising expenses and to characterize them as anything else is a total lie,” Cooper said.

Nunes’ office has never denied his spending the money on Celtics tickets but complained about McClatchy’s repeated coverage of the issue when reached for comment Monday. Offices for Nelson and Cornyn did not return a request for comment.

Members of Congress typically have two accounts associated with them personally: Their campaign account and what is known as a leadership PAC. There is already a personal use ban on campaign accounts but not on leadership PACs.

If the FEC eventually approves the ban rule, it would treat leadership PAC spending as similar to campaign account spending, meaning much more scrutiny of leadership PAC expenses in the future.

Leadership PACs are purportedly meant for candidates to donate to other candidates and committees, but the report by Campaign Legal Center and Issue One, nonpartisan watchdog agencies, found candidates only used an average of 45 percent of leadership PAC funds for that purpose over the last three election cycles.

“In order to drain the swamp in Washington, cleaning up leadership PAC spending is a good way to start,” said Brendan Fischer, director of the Federal Reform Program at Campaign Legal Center.

The FEC posted a call for public comment on the proposed rule Monday and gave 60 days for comment, the first step to possibly adding the rule. It would take effect after the 2018 elections and not be retroactive, meaning past spending would be free from FEC penalty.

The FEC considers purchases for entertainment, household food items, clothing, funeral expenses, tuition payments, investment expenses, salary payments to a family member and dues or fees to places such as country clubs as automatic personal uses. Other uses, such as meals, travel, vehicle or legal expenses are considered on a case-by-case basis.

The commission can only impose civil penalties, such as warnings and fines, but it can also submit information to the Department of Justice if it feels the spending rises to the level of criminal abuse. The FEC is not able to initiate removal from public office.

Campaign Legal Center, Issue One, and five former United States representatives submitted a request to the FEC on July 24 to consider the rule. Fischer said he was not surprised the commission set up public comment on the rule but saw a long path to approval.

There are currently two Republicans, one Democrat and one Independent member on the commission. There are supposed to be six commission members, and FEC regulations mandate that four affirmative votes — a majority when the commission is fully staffed — are necessary to move a rule forward.

“Republican members have been reticent in the past to take action on these types of rules,” Fischer said. “We’re hoping the research in the report we submitted will change that.”

This is the first time the FEC has considered such a rule on leadership PACs. Only one or two items tend to go through this process every year, according to Judy Ingram, a spokeswoman for the FEC.

That doesn’t mean approval is assured, and it’s also unclear how long the process will take. There can be multiple hearings after the comment period, each requiring a vote forward by the commission.

“It’s not a short process by any means,” Ingram said.

Ingram said the FEC has recommended prohibiting personal use by all campaign committees in the past to Congress but now the consideration by the FEC is being driven by the request by Campaign Legal Center and others.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby