- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2011

A collection of former high-ranking Republicans will launch a group that will raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in a bid to retain the party’s majority in the House, they announced Thursday. The formation of the Congressional Leadership Fund solidifies the movement of the new type of loosely regulated committee from outside operators to establishment tools.

A former director of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), Brian O. Walsh, will head the group, which will be chaired by former Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota. It will be organized as an independent expenditure committee, or “super-PAC,” meaning it may run ads supporting or opposing candidates but may not coordinate with those candidates.

Virtually the entire House leadership, however, has allied itself with the new group. On Nov. 2, a who’s who of current Republican House leadership will appear at the group’s inaugural fundraiser, including Speaker John A. Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, the NRCC chairman.

Its formation is a response to the House Majority PAC, a Democrat-allied vehicle that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California has supported, said Mr. Walsh.

“For years, the Democrats have had multiple organizations, including MoveOn.org, the unions and others that have been funding independent expenditures. They’ve had all the tools. Now, those of us on our side of the aisle have all the tools,” he said.

The committee’s sole goal is the same as that of the NRCC: to win close House races and expand the party’s majority. While a person may not give more than $28,500 to a party committee, super-PACs can accept contributions of any amount. Mr. Walsh said likely donors to the new group would be wealthy conservatives who had already given the maximum to the NRCC.

Its status as a decidedly establishment body — as opposed to, say, the grass-roots tea party movement or environmental activists — indicates the extent to which independent expenditure groups have quickly gone from rogue, outside players to the way that Washington does business.

Even though the groups must represent themselves as independent and no coordination may take place, current party leaders may appear at events and even solicit donations — as long as they don’t ask for amounts that would exceed donation caps in place for their own campaigns.

“We’re really in a Wild West where leadership is actively courting contributions for these groups,” said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, which studies money in politics.

In addition to the House Majority Fund, a super-PAC called the Majority Fund will advance the goals of Senate Democrats.

“The independence of these groups is completely in question. … If you speak at an event and say this organization is fantastic and then walk off the stage and someone else asks you to write an unlimited check, what’s the difference?” said Mr. Wonderlich.

“You hire good lawyers,” Mr. Walsh said.

Mr. Cantor’s deputy chief of staff, John Murray, also left his job weeks ago to head a super-PAC that will promote leaders in Mr. Cantor’s image. One of the ways in which party leaders traditionally build loyalty from the rank and file is by assisting them in raising money, and by maintaining “leadership PACs” that support them. But new members also look to leadership for guidance about how to operate, and leadership PACs are typically not unlimited funds.

At the new group’s fundraising core is Fred Malek, a board member whose ties to the Republican Party extend to his time as an operative on Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign.

Last year, Mr. Malek founded and funded the American Action Network (AAN), a nonprofit formed under section 501c(4) of the tax code, to raise money and advocate for conservative causes. It employed another former Cantor chief of staff and spent $26 million on federal elections that year, about one-fifth of what the NRCC spent during that two-year election cycle.

Now, longtime party leaders appear to have decided to bring the outside operation in-house. The new fund’s top staff mirrors that of the Action Network, including Mr. Coleman. Mr. Walsh will head both groups.

Increasingly, single sets of operators have overseen linked groups operating under different sections of the tax and political systems in order to take advantage of differing and sometimes contradictory regulations.

The AAN once shared office space with American Crossroads, a super-PAC that spent $22 million in the last election cycle, along with its similarly named affiliate, which is registered as a nonprofit.

“Evading the spirit of campaign finance laws involves this illusion of pretending to wear different hats,” said Mr. Wonderlich.

The American Action Network and American Action Forum are such multipronged groups.

“There’s three things: You have the 501c(3), which solicits money for policy research. The advocacy arm, American Action Forum, is to generate citizen activism around issues. Now the Congressional Leadership Fund is a political action committee dedicated to supporting candidates,” Mr. Walsh said.

The timing of the announcement highlighted a disclosure problem. House candidates will disclose who funded their campaigns in the quarter ending September by Saturday, and party committees like the NRCC report monthly. But super-PACs, which can choose to itemize their finances only twice per year, can avoid making such disclosures.

In the presidential sphere, where most major candidates have super-PACs aligned with them — often staffed by former campaign officials — a similar problem is emerging. The question of super-PACs adds a further element of chaos to Republican primaries as states have bested one another by moving up primary dates.

On Wednesday, New Hampshire’s secretary of state said Dec. 6 would be a “realistic option.” In such a case, voters determining the crucial outcome of the early primary could have no clue who had bankrolled massive advertising campaigns dedicated to influencing the outcome for nearly six months.