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Kai Ryssdal: John McCain and Barack Obama are raking in the really big campaign contributions this election season, but they’re not the only politicians out there hustling for cash.
Members of Congress raise money too — they’ve got their own election campaigns to worry about, of course — but they don’t always use the money they collect to keep themselves in office. Sometimes, lawmakers just like to relax.
Here’s Marketplace’s Steve Henn with the second installment of PAC Men, our series on leadership political action committees.
Steve Henn: Imagine throwing a party and you’re so popular people will pay you just to get invited. Monica Notzen is a Republican consultant who plans parties like this for lawmakers.
Basically, her job consists of calling lobbyists and other insiders and inviting them to parties. But to come, she tells them they have to contribute to a politician’s leadership political action committee, or PAC, first.
Monica Notzen: Oh my gosh. You know, we’ve had just some fantastic events — You name it. We’ve really tried to be creative and do some fun stuff. You know, we’ve done trips to New York and seen some Broadway shows. Anything that is really personal, that’s what makes an event really special.
The PAC account picks up a lawmaker’s expenses and the lawmakers get to do the things they love for free: ski weekends in Aspen, getaways to Pebble Beach, all in the company of those who pay to tag along.
Notzen: Let’s put it this way: I take notice of who writes checks and who doesn’t.
Notzen says lawmakers are looking to raise as much money as they can with their PACs and lobbyists and corporate executives who donate to these special accounts are looking for more than just face time and a chicken dinner.
Notzen: When you are competing every night with 40 different events, you need to be a little bit more creative, you need to have a little bit more of a high touch approach.
For some members of Congress, this can work out extraordinarily well and these PAC accounts and the parties they pay for are booming. FEC reports show lawmakers have spent cash from these accounts on everything from babysitting bills to bar tabs, from parties in Las Vegas clubs to fishing trips in the Florida Keys.
Congressman Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas, is one of Monica Notzen’s clients and he doesn’t see anything wrong with this picture.
Pete Sessions: I don’t think that lobbyists in and of themselves are deceptive or deceitful people. I don’t have any problem with people going and doing things whether it’s at a pool or horse racing. What bothers me is if you say one thing and do something else.
In the past three years, unions and corporate executives contributed more than $77 million to these leadership PACs according to Federal Election Commission reports. Lobbyists kicked in millions more.
Working together, Notzen and Pete Sessions run one of the more successful PACs on Capitol Hill and last spring, Notzen’s company planned an event for Pete Session’s PAC in Vegas: a fundraiser at Ivan Kane’s Forty Deuce.
Sessions: That’s right, we do a Las Vegas fundraiser every year and not only raise money, but see Las Vegas. It’s a beautiful town.
Henn: Forty Deuce is a strip club.
Sessions: You know, I’ve never seen that. It is what I would call a burlesque show where there’s a woman who comes out and has a dress on… Uh, she never get’s naked. There’s no nudity, there’s no nudity in there.
This is how the club’s owner, Ivan Kane, describes his brand of burlesque.
Ivan Kane: The key component would be to have girls who were dancers taking their clothes off, not just girls taking their clothes off.
Sessions spent more than $5,000 at Kane’s club that night in March, according to federal disclosures. Those reports show Sessions spent another $2,100 on his hotel.
Officially, Pete Sessions’ leadership PAC picked up the tab, but just days before the party at Forty Deuce, casino interests donated $5,000 to his PAC. Payday lenders threw in another $2,500.
Some might quibble with the Congressman’s taste, but Sessions and the other attendees say the event was tame. It was all fully disclosed and none of it violated a single law. In fact, Pete Sessions’ party in Vegas was cheap in comparison to what other members of Congress routinely spend on golfing or skiing or chartered jets.
Sessions: It’s hard for me to know what is normal or regular any more. I mean I’ve seen people that do things half way around the world.
In fact, Sessions runs one of the least wasteful PACs in Washington. In three years, he raised more than a million dollars and given away more $800,000 to colleagues running in elections. Other leadership PACs don’t do nearly as well.
Since 2005, these accounts have raised more than $188 million, but the lion’s share of that cash was never spent on federal election campaigns. Instead, more than $100 million was spent other things like consultants or staff or just having a great time.
In Washington, I’m Steve Henn for Marketplace.