Once thought of as a stealthy way to exploit a loophole in campaign finance law, political action committees controlled by congressional leaders have become a flashy vehicle for self-promotion.
And many so-called Leadership PACs have set up extensive Web sites, ostensibly to promote other candidates, but clearly devoted to fluffing up their patron's political standing.
For several congressional Democrats who are considering a run for president in 2004, the PAC Web sites are largely indistinguishable in style and content from a regular electioneering site.
At this phase, before candidates have clarified their intentions, the leadership PACs are their main vehicle for having the functionality of a real campaign, including communicating with voters. And since the sites are paid for by contributions to the committee, the presidential hopefuls are rewarded with a comprehensive Web site devoted to advancing their own interests — at no cost to them.
The more boastful sites play footsie with federal election laws, which prohibit the PAC's sponsors from funnelling resources to their own campaigns for reelection or for a different political office.
E-mail subscribers to Sen. Joseph Lieberman's, D-Conn., Responsibility, Opportunity and Community PAC Web site can get the full text of the senator's speeches sent to them — whether on tax cuts, Enron, or the war on terror.
The ROCPAC Web site's home page lists six items that read as press releases for the senator, including a prominent link to a Hartford Courant article about comedian Jerry Stiller attending Lieberman's 63rd birthday in early May.
By clicking on a small tab, visitors can view a list of candidates ROCPAC has supported. A few candidates' biographies are provided — the "ROC Stars" — and dozens of candidate Web sites are listed.
But the majority of the site is devoted to Lieberman — his life, accomplishments and current activities.
"We could be better at this," ROCPAC Executive Director Sherry Brown says of the site. "We've only been up for six weeks now."
She denied the site served as a sneaky way to promote Lieberman's political persona. "I think the fact that we've given over $400,000 in contributions to candidates says what we're doing."
ROCPAC.org will soon be managed by a full-time Webmaster who will spend time highlighting the office-seekers.
Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's Fund For A Healthy America PAC is new, but its Web site is among the most informative. Tabs bring viewers to pages about "The Vermont Record," about Dean and his priorities, and notable quotables. One learns, for example, that The Associated Press Vermont Bureau Chief Chris Graff once said, "Howard Dean is Vermont's Harry Truman."
The fund's home page is adorned with three colorful photographs of picaresque Vermont scenery. There is no link to information about candidates the PAC supports.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's PAC site, www.dashpac.com, is the most comprehensive and most frequently updated of all the 2004 hopefuls. Like Lieberman's site, it has a full biography, links to Daschle's recent speeches, news about the Democratic majority.
But it also has extensive information about DASHPAC candidates, like California Assembly leader Kevin Shelley. A map of the United States contains embedded links to state DASHPAC home pages, where voters can find out who's running where. The news ticker at the bottom is mix of Democratic headlines and stories about Daschle himself.
"I think that goes hand in hand with him being majority leader." said Alex Meixner, the DASHPAC Webmaster. "Obviously, he has issues that he feels strongly about and wants out there. At the same time, he's doing a lot of work for other Democrats."
Former Vice President Al Gore's Leadership '02 has reserved a domain name and plans to post to the Web shortly.
"Our focus is on electing Democrats in 2002 and our website will reflect that," Jano Cabrera, a Leadership '02 spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards' New American Optimists Committee has no Web site — and neither does the Committee for Effective Government, which contributes to candidates on behalf of House Speaker Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who is running for reelection this year, paid for a thorough campaign Web site with all the bells and whistles, even though a victory is virtually assured.
Vehicles for Self-Promotion?
It is not unusual for politicians to use the Web sites to promote themselves. Sen. John McCain's, R-Ariz., Straight Talk America Web site includes a link to a site where his book, Faith of My Fathers, is sold. (A book about McCain by writer Elizabeth Drew is also for sale). Separate pages detail McCain's passion for national service and campaign finance law reform.
Sen. John Breaux's, D-La., New Democrat Network PAC is an exception. It is chock full of political intelligence about New Democrat ideas and candidates. It takes more than a few clicks to find mention of Breaux's sponsorship. He's on an executive committee with other Democratic leaders (including Lieberman).
House Majority Whip Tom Delay's Americans for a Republican Majority PAC is almost entirely devoted to Delay and his conservative vision for America.
Several of the most prolific Leadership PACs, like New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's HILLPAC and Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickels' New Majority Leadership PAC do not have Web sites.
Threading the Needle
According to FEC analysts, campaign law and its interpretation have little to say about Leadership PAC Web sites.
An FEC spokesperson said that regulators are currently drafting rules about candidate-related materials on Web sites but did not think that this issue would be addressed.
The Federal Election Campaign Act, the umbrella law for campaign finance, was written 1972 when the drafters' idea of political communication was limited to television and radio ads.
Certain statutes transfer easily to the Internet — campaign contributions are regulated no matter how they are solicited.
But one provision, for example, allows contributors to provide their home or private property free of charge to campaigns. Does that encompass Internet sites owned by individuals and operated from their bedroom? The FEC says it doesn't know.
And what about express advocacy? The PAC Web sites contain content that a reasonable Web viewer would take as an endorsement of the congressional leader.
"They're basically campaign sites under a different guise," said Larry Noble, a former FEC commissioner. "The Web site becomes just another voice, for the leader who has the PAC," he said.
But so long as candidates don't directly call for their own reelection, they're in safe water.
Noble, who is the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a pro-reform research group, predicted that Leadership PAC activity would be constrained by the parts of the new campaign finance law that are likely to pass judicial review.
Sens. Daschle, Edwards and Gephardt, for example, have lucrative soft money accounts that can be used for generic, party-building or get-out-the-vote activities. If courts uphold a ban on soft money, the only change to Web site operations would be that the money to pay for them would have to come from the PAC's hard money accounts, donations to which are capped by law.
Fund-raising and spending totals for the first half of 2002 will be released July 15.