The Beltway Way (Moneygoround Mix)

Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL15). (Detail of photo by David Banks/Bloomberg)

We get a glimpse into the Beltway moneygoround; Curtis Tate looks into Congressional PAC spending:

The leadership political action committee affiliated with Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois has splurged on Napa Valley wine tours, Miami Beach luxury hotels and Washington Nationals baseball tickets worth tens of thousands of dollars over the past four years, federal campaign disclosures show.

The nine-term Republican represents a coal-producing region of southern Illinois and frequently speaks in defense of fossil fuels as a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. But earlier this year, his John S Fund PAC put down a deposit for a fundraising event at a California spa hotel that’s powered by solar panels.

PACs are lightly regulated entities that members of Congress typically use as fundraising tools for their party, but not for their own campaigns.

The McClatchy report notes Rep. Shimkus (R-IL15) is not uncommon: “Most senior lawmakers with PACs spend at least some of the money on perks their salaries don’t cover”, Tate explains. Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics calls the PACs “a nice little piggybank to have”, explaining, “There are so few restrictions on how you can use it.”

The thing is that the story really is just a glimpse; the whole thing sounds sordid but in this framework it is a matter of aesthetics versus law, and the question of how to make these things work just right is pretty much as complicated as any other question of freedom versus civilized society as a suicide pact. That is to say, good luck electing a Congress that will get rid of the things; the Supreme Court is pretty much a wildcard, though we can easily guess it would be something of a stretch to imagine the judiciary banning these practices outright. And, really, just how badly will society and its political institutions fail at not being undignified if we hold a big sit-down in the public discourse and parse out the details of what is or isn’t acceptable?

There is, for instance, a list of expenses that sound like the moneygoround: Retaining a Republican-oriented fundraising consultant for a hundred thousand dollars; fifty-three thousand to a spa resort featuring “healing geothermal pools” and a suite checking in at just under a thousand a night; thirty thousand on wine, tours, and catering; a deposit on another spa resort, and here Tate takes a moment for irony:

The spa’s Tufa Suite offers an indoor-outdoor living space, with an outdoor shower and steamroom and an in-room spa treatment area. There’s also a double-sided gas fireplace dividing the living and bedroom areas.

All for just $1,200 a night.

The Bardessono promotes itself as green. The hotel is heated and cooled with a geothermal system, and powered by 940 rooftop solar panels.

Shimkus, one of Congress’ most outspoken defenders of coal, often criticizes the Obama administration for its emphasis on renewable energy.

Miami Beach, baseball tickets; you know, the usual.

To the other:

To be sure, the John S Fund donates to other members at least as much as it spends on fundraising activities. In 2014, it doled out $231,000 in campaign contributions, while it spent $221,000 on fundraising activity, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

No, you are not supposed to be impressed or relieved or anything like that. But try to argue thresholds and restrictions. Regular old PACs are just as problematic as their innovated super-PAC brethren; argue over legitimate expenses for congressional leadership PACs just like we might argue over what constitutes educational and informational in super-PAC spending.

And, yes, good luck electing a Congress to get rid of these things entirely. Furthermore, consider what it comes to:

The fund, like many others, also contributes to the national and state parties, and state and local candidates.

The PAC has distributed $110,000 to Republicans this year for their campaigns, according to the center.

The PAC supports less senior Republican lawmakers from Illinois. This year, it has donated $10,000 each to the campaigns of Reps. Mike Bost, Rodney Davis, Bob Dold and Darin LaHood.

Bost, who was first elected in 2014, doesn’t have a PAC. Leadership PACs are his largest source of campaign cash for 2016, totaling $173,000.

Davis, who was first elected in 2012, has a PAC, but it’s not very active. Other leadership PACs are his second largest source of campaign money for 2016, totaling $105,000.

It’s one thing to say elected officials, especially Congress, will find ways to share fundraising wealth. To the other, it does seem striking to consider members of Congress whose war chests are so dependent on political action committees run by their fellow chambermen; it seems a corrosive practice.

Or so says me, but short of amending the Constitution to create restricted conceptual space around elected officials, it seems that banishing one class of entities tends to result in the rise of another. We occasionally hear talk of the letter and spirit of the law, but the important thing to remember is that there are entire cottage industries specifically designed for violating the spirit while adhering to the letter. Thus, if we constrict one entity class, is there any specific prohibition against this other, and what stops anyone from simply inventing a new classification altogether?

Something about eternal vigilance goes here. Still, though, the whiff of scandal about Curtis Tate’s report isn’t so much Mr. Shimkus himself, but has to do with the nature of PACs in general. Certainly we can call some of the expenses scandalous, but that really is a matter of aesthetics.

Nonetheless, just to drive the point, the article closes on a note of infamy, discussing the John S. Fund PAC compared to the rest of Congress, recalling former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), as well as former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), and the dubious harvest of $3.2 million spent by their PACs in contributing to a successful Republican midterm election that wrecked Cantor in a primary and drove Boehner from office within a year. And then this:

Also in 2014, former Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., contributed more than $500,000 through his GOP Generation Y Fund. In 2015, Schock resigned amid questions about tens of thousands of dollars in government reimbursements for mileage on his personal vehicle that didn’t match the car’s odometer.

If we seek an indictment of political action committees, such is left to the beholder; that last really would seem like piling on. But that disdain or even disgust such articles might bring is still important. Remember, this is merely a glimpse.


Image note: Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL15). (Detail of photo by David Banks/Bloomberg)

Tate, Curtis. “This lawmaker spent big PAC money on wine tours, resort stays”. McClatchy DC. 3 June 2016.

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