A fundraising method used by politicians is receiving hard scrutiny.
Two South Carolina legislators introduced a change in state Senate rules Tuesday that would prevent senators from creating political action committees, better known as PACs. These are groups specifically designed to raise money for elected officials through donations of up to $3,500 each. Some use the PACs to raise additional money beyond what they’re limited through their campaigns.
The change would have little actual impact. No senators currently have their own PAC, although several members of the House (which would not be affected) do.
Sen. Jake Knotts (R-Lexington) and Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw) say they want to stop the PACs before they emerge in the Senate. Sheheen says they give too much power to those who own them.
(We) are waging a campaign to stop a cancer that has really eaten away at our national government in Washington, DC. We’ve seen creatures like these leadership PACs develop, consolidate power in a few individuals, and lead to the ever-increasing money chase by political officials.
While the PACs cannot donate directly to their sponsoring legislators, they can pay some campaign expenses, such as travel costs. The sponsoring legislator can also give money to a fellow House member’s campaign.
Knotts said it gives a bad impression.
We’re concerned about what’s happening in South Carolina in the Statehouse now… I’m not saying anybody is doing anything illegal, but it doesn’t look good.
Knotts said a legislator will often write a business to request a direct $1,000 donation to his campaign, along with a $3,500 donation to his or her PAC. Some businesses will often donate to several PACs for different legislators.
They’re getting hit twice… You’ll see the same businesses giving to each one of the PACs $3,500, in most cases. Then that money, in turn, is given to members of the House who also collect from the business community to run their campaign on an individual basis.
Rep. Alan Clemmons (R-Myrtle Beach) has his own leadership PAC through the “Palmetto Patriot Leadership Committee.” According to records released by Common Cause, the council raised over $46,000 last year. Clemmons said he uses the money it raises to support the re-election bids of his fellow House members, since he’s not allowed to use it on himself.
Knotts said the PACs give incumbents an unfair advantage in an election, making it harder for a challenger to even establish their footing.
Several House leadership members are also connected to PACs, notably Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston).
Harrell does not own the Palmetto Leadership Council PAC, but does promote donations to the group. He is also quite open with his support, providing a message and his photo on the Council’s webpage. The PLC’s fundraising power dwarfs other groups, spending over $645,000 last year– more than all legislators’ PACs combined.
House Minority Leader Harry Ott (D-Clarendon) also has his own, “A Fund for a Better SC.” However, PACs aren’t a guaranteed re-election tool. Former Rep. Harry Cato was unseated in the GOP primary last June despite having one.
A bill that would have banned leadership PACs in both houses cleared the Senate last year, but died in the House.
Knotts wanted the rules change addressed on the Senate floor Tuesday, citing the 44 members who’ve signed on. However, the Senate sent the bill to a committee after an objection was raised.