WASHINGTON – Presidential hopefuls who start political action committees to raise their profiles before entering the race may have their spending more aggressively scrutinized by the Federal Election Commission.
Commissioner Michael Toner said Wednesday that he wants the FEC to make it clear that presidential hopefuls can't use such committees, known as "leadership PACs," to test the waters or skirt presidential campaign finance limits. The FEC does not have specific rules addressing leadership PACs, but it generally has said candidates cannot use their own PACs to promote their campaigns.
"I think there's a clear history of expenses paid for out of leadership PACs that arguably are directly related to running for president," Toner said, listing polling, focus groups and trips to early primary states such as New Hampshire.
He said the commission's current regulations provide no meaningful restriction on the use of leadership PACs to lay the groundwork for a presidential run. That undermines the contribution and spending limits imposed on presidential candidates who accept public financing, Toner said.
At least four others on the six-member commission said they think its current review of leadership PACs should at least look at White House hopefuls' use of the committees. Any rules the commission adopts on presidential candidates would go into effect with the 2008 race.
The FEC is considering whether members of Congress can continue applying separate contribution limits to their PACs and campaign committees and how the PACs can be used, among other questions.
Members of Congress, including most of the 2004 Democratic presidential hopefuls, have established leadership PACs to build support for themselves within their parties. Lawmakers typically use such committees to raise money for other candidates and party committees, and to cover travel expenses when campaigning for others.
Watchdog groups such as the Center for Responsive Politics and Common Cause told the commission at a hearing Wednesday that lawmakers' leadership PACs and campaign committees should be considered connected, with the same contribution limits applied to both.
The commission's current practice of treating them as separate allows donors and members of Congress to skirt campaign finance laws, they said. For example, during a senator's six-year term, a donor can give up to $4,000 to the senator's campaign and $30,000 to his or her leadership PAC, they said.
"People give because they believe it will buy them access," said Larry Noble, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. "This is just another avenue."
House Republican lawyer Don McGahn said the commission should continue allowing leadership PACs. Many incumbents use their PACs to help first-time candidates who would otherwise have trouble raising money, he said.
McGahn, speaking on behalf of several House Republicans, including Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, said he didn't expect the number of leadership PACs to increase if the commission concluded each member could have one. Although at least 170 members of Congress have leadership PACs, few raise substantial sums, he said.
"Everybody has these dreams of creating their own financial empires" but it doesn't happen, McGahn said. "There's a handful at the top who are able to raise the money."