Al Franken left the Senate in 2017, but his political organization lives on.
The Minnesota Democrat spent tens of thousands of dollars on political consultants, legal fees and expenses related to the May launch of his eponymous podcast over the first six months of 2019, according to new filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Those services were paid for, at least initially, by Midwest Values PAC, a political committee Franken created while in office to raise and spend political cash outside his regular campaign fund.
Franken isn’t the only former member still spending down a leadership PAC balance. Jason Lewis, the former GOP congressman currently mulling a U.S. Senate run, reported using his Just Lead PAC to pay for a $794 Hotwire travel bill and $772 in catering expenses at the Capitol Hill Club this spring. ICE PAC, started by former Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, paid for a $10,000 consulting tab and nearly $1,000 in travel costs for the former congressman.
Current laws and regulations do not prohibit former members from using so-called “zombie PACs” to continue spending their campaign funds for authorized purposes once they’ve left office.
It’s not just former Minnesota lawmakers making use of leadership PACs, which are a way of extending politicians’ influence. Eight of 10 current members of the state delegation in Congress have such an account registered with the FEC.
Weeks after winning a November special election to fill the remainder of Franken’s term, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith opened the Velvet Hammer PAC, a nod to a nickname the Democrat gained during her time as a dealmaker at the State Capitol. By the end of June, she’d raised nearly $80,000 for the committee, mostly from corporate PACs and labor unions. More than $56,000 of that cash has already gone back out the door in the form of donations to the re-election committees for fellow Democrats, including Alabama U.S. Sen. Doug Jones and New Hampshire U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Veterans in Minnesota’s delegation have built robust leadership PAC war chests over the years. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Follow the North Star Fund) and Republican Rep. Tom Emmer (Electing Majority Making Effective Republicans) doled out tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to help current and future colleagues in the first six months of 2019. Emmer’s transfers included $25,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which he chairs. Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson has more than $300,000 in reserves sitting in his Valley PAC. He doled out 11 $1,000 checks to Democratic candidates between January and June and spent another $11,000 on consultants.
Freshman Republican Reps. Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber reported zero contributions or expenditures for their committees, named MAGADORN and Let’s All Keep Electing Republicans. Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, a prolific fundraiser, has yet to report raising or spending significant sums through her Inspiring Leadership Has A Name PAC.
“People who rise up in leadership positions are people who have a lot of friends out there and make a point to make a lot of friends. Leadership PACs are one way people have had success in that,” said Gina Countryman, a GOP strategist who worked for Rep. Michele Bachmann when the Minnesota Republican launched a leadership committee.
The funds can also be used to pay for other costs related to raising money, including consultants, fundraisers and travel. Those perks, and the chance to solicit donations beyond the contribution limits set for candidate re-election committees, have made leadership PACs ubiquitous in Washington.
More than 85% of U.S. House members and all but two U.S. senators have opened PACs of their own, according to an analysis by Issue One, a nonpartisan advocacy group focused on accountability and ethics in politics.
But a politician doesn’t have to be in office to use donor funds collected by a PAC. In Franken’s case, the leadership committee allows the former senator to keep lawyers and consultants on his political payroll as he wades back into the public spotlight following the allegations by several women of unwanted touching or kissing that led him to announce his resignation in late 2017. Ed Shelleby, a former deputy chief of staff, was paid $15,000 for communications consulting in January, a year after Franken resigned. Franken also used the funds for pay for website hosting and video services. Roughly $18,000 in “podcast expenses” were reimbursed to the committee by the former senator’s private company in April, according to his campaign report. He made just one contribution to a fellow Democrat’s campaign during that time. A spokesman for the former senator declined to comment on his leadership PAC.
Franken’s PAC still has more than $1 million in the bank.
While leadership PACs are often funded through big-dollar contributions from corporate interests, advocacy groups and labor unions, experts say encouraging grassroots donors to contribute to the committees could give freshman House members like Omar and other members of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing more power to influence elections across the country.
“These leadership PACs could be tools to support more candidates of color, support more women candidates, support whichever voices in races across the country they want to support,” said Michael Beckel, research director at Issue One. “For now they aren’t seemingly putting a lot of time or energy into raising money for this additional tool, [but] it remains in their back pocket should they want to go down that line.”
Reps. Dean Phillips and Angie Craig, both Democrats, are among 51 freshman representatives who have yet to open a leadership PAC.
Phillips, who made campaign finance changes a central part of his pitch to voters last year, said in a statement to the Star Tribune that such committees “represent more of the same broken rules under which my fellow members are forced to participate.”
“While I don’t fault my colleagues for using them in our current broken system of campaign finance,” he said, “I envision a future in which they don’t exist.”