WASHINGTON — Over the past two years, deep-pocketed donors to U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss have helped the Georgia Republican enjoy a quarter of a million dollars worth of golf outings at some of the nation’s ritziest resorts.
Through their contributions to the senator’s Republican Majority Fund — a type of leadership political action committee established by a member of Congress to support other candidates — lobbyists and businesses such as Blue Cross Blue Shield and Lockheed Martin footed the bill for Chambliss’ golf fundraisers, often held at elite courses such as Pebble Beach in California and Greenbrier in West Virginia.
Since 2007, Chambliss — whose affinity for golf is widely known in political circles — has used PAC money to golf at roughly a dozen of the nation’s top resorts, according to Federal Election Commission records and an analysis by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.
“The (Republican Majority Fund) has traditionally raised money through golfing events, which, by their nature, are more expensive to host than other types of fundraising events,” said Bronwyn Lance-Chester, Chambliss’ communications director. “This is a perfectly legal entity, and many senators have similar fundraising organizations.”
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Although in 2007 both the House and Senate banned lawmakers from taking gifts from lobbyists and associated companies, donors can still give to leadership PACs. Lawmakers can make direct contributions to federal and non-federal candidates, fund independent expenditures to advocate for or against a particular candidate, and pay for operational expenses, such as travel, related to maintaining the PAC and raising money.
Campaign funds, which are governed under different FEC guidelines, can’t be spent for personal use by a candidate and his or her campaign committee.
Others spend on fundraisers
Chambliss isn’t the only member of the Georgia delegation to use his leadership PAC money on high-priced fetes. Fellow Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson spent $128,453, or roughly 26 percent of the $485,008 his 21st Century Majority Fund raised, on entertainment, travel and events, according to staff records.
The bulk of the entertainment money was spent on Isakson’s annual two-day golf tournament fundraiser at the Atlanta Country Club and East Lake Golf Club.
“It’s one of those situations where you have to spend a little money to raise money,” Isakson spokeswoman Sheridan Watson said. “Senator Isakson created the 21st Century Majority Fund to raise money for Republican candidates. He feels the PAC has been successful and responsible in meeting that goal with 58 percent of the funds going to campaign contributions.”
Eleven of the 15 members of the state’s congressional delegation have leadership PACs. Of those 15, all but Chambliss directly donated at least 50 percent of the funds raised to other candidates. Rep. John Linder, R-Lawrenceville, and Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, gave nearly all of the money their leadership PACs raised to other candidates.
Chambliss said he’s satisfied that his leadership PAC’s fundraising efforts are helping support Republicans in competitive campaigns for the House and Senate and that the fundraising efforts are above board.
“All (Republican Majority Fund) expenses and contributions have always been fully and transparently disclosed,” Lance-Chester said. “Every RMF fundraising event has been appropriately conducted, all expenses have been closely examined and all reporting has been accurate and transparent.”
Gifts to candidates in need
It’s nebulous congressional policies regarding leadership PACs that clear the way for lawmakers and lobbyists to use the money to bond after rounds of golf, steak dinners and large donations.
According to ProPublica’s analysis, in the past three election cycles lobbyists and special interests poured $355 million into these PACs, making them the second-largest source of political money for 70 percent of the sitting members of Congress.
Traditionally, recipients pass on the bulk of the money to less fortunate candidates to help with their campaigns. For example, during the past two years Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., contributed roughly 74 percent of the $888,707 his Bluegrass Committee PAC raised to other candidates, including $10,000 to Chambliss.
Chambliss in turn gave roughly a quarter of the $778,971 his leadership PAC raised to other GOP candidates, including $7,500 to McConnell and $2,500 to retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Rick Goddard for his failed congressional bid against Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Macon.
Sometimes lawmakers opt to spend more on high-priced fundraiser getaways or to use the money in other ways that both campaign finance experts and the FEC find questionable.
“Even if it is for fundraising, it is a corrupting practice to begin with because you’re saying ‘I as a member of Congress am going to tap into my special influence to help colleagues.’ Why not give the money directly to the candidate,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center.
Earlier this year the FEC sent a letter to House and Senate leadership recommending that the personal use of leadership PAC funds be prohibited.
To date, the FEC hasn’t received a response.
“Congress has never extended the personal use restrictions to leadership PACs. The FEC has looked at this over the years and has determined they don’t have the statutory ability to address this. It will take an act of Congress,” said Michael Toner, an election law expert and a former chairman of the FEC. “It’s unclear whether Congress would have the appetite to change the federal election laws in the new future. The reality is there hasn’t been a lot enthusiasm for extending personal use restrictions to leadership PACs and it’s a pretty bipartisan sentiment.”