What do leadership PACs do?
They do less now than they did before super PACs, but still more than when they were first invented in the 1980s.22
Leadership PACs got their name because the first ones were formed by people who were in, or aspired to be in, positions of leadership in Congress. Suppose, for example, that you are in your second term in the House of Representatives and want to start your climb up the ladder of party office by chairing the subcommittee you are on. You can build the kind of support you need to get that spot by forming a personal PAC to make contributions to members of your party's steering committee—they are the ones who make such appointments—and to other subcommittee members.
Your help will be especially welcome to colleagues who are in tight races. You can give them contributions directly and write a check to your party's congressional campaign committee. You can also contribute to your colleagues' state parties and help with polling and fundraising. They will not forget who filled their campaign chests.23
There was nothing new about this. Long before there were such things as PACs, leading members of Congress used the networks of friends and donors they had built over the years to send money to the members whose votes they needed.
There were two advantages to doing the same thing with a PAC. Members could "double dip" by soliciting money for their PAC from big donors who had already given the legal maximum to their campaign committee. And they could hand out $5,000 PAC contributions rather than $1,000 (before 2002) individual contributions. Raise and give enough money and you could well get the leadership position you wanted while building a network of friends that would serve you well as you moved up to higher positions.
Members with safe seats could use their PACs to make their incumbent advantage even stronger. They could not legally give the money they raised to their own campaign committees, at least not directly. But they could help themselves indirectly by hiring the political consultants they would need and by handing out money to state and local parties and candidates to shore up support back home.
Leadership PACs also were a way to get around anti-corruption rules that limit what lobbyists can give to legislators. Lobbyists can no longer hand out choice tickets to ball games, or give legislators all-expenses-paid trips to pricey ski resorts or golf courses. But legislators can pay for those things themselves, using money those same lobbyists contribute to their personal PACs.24
Some reform-minded members tried to ban leadership PACs. But when even backbenchers began forming such committees, members found them too useful to support a ban. It was not long before people realized how useful the PACs could be to politicians seeking the nation's highest office.25
In 1995, Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) was able to use his personal PAC, Campaign America, to start his unofficial campaign for the presidency without having to announce that he was a candidate.
During what political scientists call the invisible primary, in the odd-numbered year before the official primaries, Dole gave contributions to state and local candidates and party committees in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. He had been doing the same thing since 1988, but in 1996 it paid off by helping him get the Republican nomination.26
Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did the same thing in 2007 with their personal PACs, Hope Fund and HillPAC, respectively, and Governor Mitt Romney followed suit in 2011. Times change, though, and by 2011 the leadership PAC was already old news. It still had its uses, but the big new thing was the super PAC.27