CUNA Hits New Highs As It Gets Busy PAC-ing

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CUNA continued its trek towards the head of the list of political givers last year by setting a new high for campaign contributions.

CUNA's political action committee, which has increased its might-financially speaking-since the Campaign for Consumer Choice back in 1997-98-has ascended near the top of the list of political contributors to Congress.

Last year, the first year of the two-year campaign cycle, CUNA's PAC, known as CU Legislative Action Council, contributed a total of $1.4 million to members of Congress and wannabe members of Congress. That puts the credit union PAC among the top four contributors to candidates, exceeded only by the National Association of Realtors, National Beer Wholesalers Association, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Now trailing behind CUNA, in terms of campaign contributions, are the powerful Trial Lawyers of America, and the credit unions' traditional nemesis, the American Bankers Association.

In the first year of the 2005-2006 election cycle CUNA's PAC raised $1.3 million and spent $1.7 million, the vast majority of it on individual contributions up to the maximum allowable $10,000 per candidate. That leaves the PAC with $561,000 of cash on hand going into the important election year, one of its biggest campaign war chests ever. That figure is exceeded only by the $717,000 CUNA had on hand going into the 2004 elections. CUNA is easily on pace to exceed the $1.9 million in campaign contributions it made in the last elections.

Among CUNA's contributions last year, were more than $150,000 in donations (including CUNA's state league affiliates) to so-called leadership PACs. Leadership PACs have become kind of like the soft money banned under the 2004 campaign finance reform law. Leadership PACs allow interests, like CUNA, to make a $10,000 contribution to an individual candidate's campaign fund, then another $10,000 to his or her leadership PAC. The funds contributed to the leadership PAC can be used for almost unlimited purposes. Many congressional leaders use the funds, in turn, to contribute to fellow lawmakers, something that PACs such as CUNA's are limited to the maximum $10,000. But leaders also use leadership PAC funds to finance all kinds of other purposes, such as personal travel.

Proliferating PACs

Over the last three election cycles leadership PACs have proliferated from around 25 operated by the top congressional leaders to more than 125 today. In the last election cycle leadership PACs collected more than $120 million, about $90 million of which was redistributed to other members of Congress as campaign contributions, according to figures on file with the Federal Election Commission. CUNA contributed more than $150,000 to leadership PACs in the last election cycle and is certain to exceed that figure by a lot this election cycle.

By far the most successful leadership PAC in the last elections was Americans for a Republican Majority, better known as ARMPAC, which was run by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas. The PAC, one of several operated by DeLay, raised more than $3.7 million, helping prop up dozens of endangered Republican candidates in the last elections. CUNA contributed the maximum $10,000 to both DeLay's personal campaign PAC and to ARMPAC in the last elections, allowing CUNA to donate $20,000 to the powerful House leader.

Almost all congressional leaders operate a leadership PAC. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) has Volunteer PAC; Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) has Keep Our Majority PAC; and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) has Rely On Your Beliefs (ROYB) PAC. On the Democratic side, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has Searchlight Leadership FUND; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has PAC To The Future, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has AMERIPAC.

Some of the more colorful leadership PAC names are: The Over The Hill PAC of Sen. George Allen (R-VA), Midnight Sun PAC of Rep. Don Young (R-AK); Northern Lights PAC of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK); Sandhills PAC of Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE); Smile PAC of Rep. Charles Norwood (R-GA); and SNOWPAC of Sen. Robert Bennet (R-UT).

Then there are a number of self-named PACs such as ROBINPAC from North Carolina Repbulican Rep. Robin Hayes, Virgina Rep. Eric Cantor's ERICPAC, California Rep. Richard Pombo's RICHPAC, Sen. Hillary Clinton's HILLPAC, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd's CHRISPAC, and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's KPAC.

It's All In The Name

Lots of leadership PACs have high-sounding themes, such as freedom or the future, including American Liberty PAC from Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney, Campaign for America's FuturePAC from Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Defend America PAC from Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, Democrats for the Future PAC from California Rep. Ellen Tauscher, and Fund for America's Future PAC from South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Others still relate to a lawmaker's home state and its heroes and traditions, such as Daniel Webster PAC (Sen. John Sununu, R-NH), Alamo PAC (Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX); Abraham Lincoln Leadership PAC (Rep. Ray Lahood, R-IL.); Badger PAC (Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis.); Bluegrass Committee (Sen. Mitch McConnel, R-KY) and Buckeye PAC (Sen. George Voinovich, R-OH).

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