When it comes to golf, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) has champagne taste. In California, he's putted at Pebble Beach, where a round of golf costs $495. In Florida, he's driven the ball down the fairways of the Boca Raton Resort, with its signature island green on the 18th hole. These are among the dozen premier resorts where Chambliss played golf in 2007 and 2008 at a cost of a quarter of a million dollars. Yet Chambliss is hardly rich. His net worth is between $181,006 and $415,000, according to his 2007 financial disclosure report, ranking him 91st in the Senate in terms of wealth.
The congressman pays for his golf through a political leadership fund, the Republican Majority Fund, which took in $692,618 during the 2008 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Almost all of it came from lobbyists, political action committees and corporate leaders.
The public might be forgiven for thinking the days are gone when lobbyists and special interests could pay for a lawmaker's cross-country golf outings. After all, both the House and Senate in 2007 responded to a spate of scandals by banning members of Congress from accepting gifts of any value from lobbyists or the companies that hire them.
But those reforms preserved a major loophole: leadership PACs, which have far looser rules and get far less scrutiny than campaign committees.
When leadership PACs began to crop up in the 1970s, only a few rising stars in Congress had them. Now, 70 percent of the members do. So do a dozen former members.
In the past three election cycles, lobbyists and special interests poured $355 million into these funds, making them the second-largest source of political money for sitting members of Congress.
Leadership PACs have paid for visits to Churchill Downs, Disney World and the Country Music Hall of Fame. They've paid for funerals, flowers and farewell parties. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) used $64,500 from his PAC to commission a portrait of himself. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid of Nevada used more than $57,000 from his PAC to entertain at Las Vegas casinos. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) spent more than $47,000 from his PAC on New York Yankees and New York Giants tickets.
All this is legal, even if it appears to make a mockery of the 2007 ethics reforms and the contribution limits at the very heart of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.