You may remember a post we did a few months back detailing the widespread use of Leadership PACs by our lawmakers. If not — let me take a second to refresh your memory. While politicians are technically barred from using campaign funds on personal expenses, they have devised a number of creative ways to circumvent these rules. That’s where Leadership PACs come in.
Historically reserved for actual congressional leaders who used them to curry favor, forge alliances and dole out cash to political colleagues, Congressional Leadership PACs have become almost ubiquitous on Capitol Hill. Because they are technically unauthorized committees of officeholders or candidates, leadership PACs are not subjected to the same scrutiny and regulation as other types of campaign committees. This makes them extremely popular with lawmakers. Funds can be used to cover travel costs to private weddings, golf trips, expensive dinners, and in the case of Queens Congressman Joe Crowley, tickets to the Grammys and $12,000 in resort fees.
But there is some good news; After 60 Minutes aired their expose, enough public outcry was created that Congress actually took notice! A bill introduced last week into the House by Jackie Spier (D-CA) called the “Making Every Representative’s Integrity Transparent Act of 2014 (MERIT Act)” would go a long way to curbing these types of “legal” practices involving Leadership PACs and campaign committees. The bill would:
- Prohibit the conversion of leadership PAC funds for personal use
- Prevent campaign committees and leadership PACs from paying relatives of candidates as staff. (Note, family members are still allowed to volunteer).
- Prohibits campaign committees from leasing property or purchasing goods or services from relatives.
- Put limits on the loan rates that a candidate may charge to his or her campaign at prime + 2%, and also requires disclosure of the terms of the loan.
- Require lobbyists who are related to members of Congress to disclose that relationship on their lobbying forms. If they lobby the family member, they must disclose each instance of lobbying and the issue they lobbied on
The MERIT Act has received bi-partisan support from a number political advocacy groups, and in their press release Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) shared a letter of support signed by 11 non-partisan groups.
The MERIT Act is a smart,common-sense approach to addressing pernicious issues of self-dealing, conflicts-of-interest, and undue influence that arise from gaps in current law. These issues go to the heart of the public’s ability to trust their elected representatives. We applaud you for championing these issues.
The MERIT Act is certainly a step in the right direction, and if passed would significantly alter the current modus operandi in Washington. Although the bill is unlikely to make it through the committee process, it shows an increased openness to tackle at least the most glaring instances of corruption in Congress, and that is reason for hope.