The fabulous life of your US legislator

Lawmakers on the cash hunt treat themselves to the best steakhouses, beach resorts and golf courses

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., left, and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
(l. to r.): Chris Usher/CBS/Reuters; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Match your U.S. lawmaker with the corresponding charges on his or her fundraising expense account, and one can get a textured glimpse of exactly what it takes these days to charm donors.

For example, which congressman spent $91,000 in 2013 for a getaway at Dorado Beach Club, a luxury resort in Puerto Rico known for its championship golf courses and plantation-style residences?

That would be Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, who has lamented the widening income gap that separates rich and poor and has been a forceful advocate for a minimum wage hike.

Which lawmaker appears to have an insatiable taste for red meat, having dropped $54,000 at BLT Steakhouse in Washington last year and another $5,000 at Bobby Van’s, a favorite haunt of D.C. lobbyists?

That’s House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. If that wasn’t enough to put his political contributors in a giving mood, his PAC, Every Republican Is Crucial, spent $2,300 on “golf fees” and “golf items” through 2013, in addition to the $26,000 the organization expended on a single fundraiser at the luxury golf resort Creighton Farms in northern Virginia.

Since the GOP’s loss in the 2012 presidential election, Cantor has been at the forefront of the party’s efforts to rehabilitate its image, visiting a number of inner-city schools and touting the conservative approach to combating poverty.

Last one: Which senator spent about $8,000 on private car services, $15,000 on a reception at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan and thousands more on caterers from Pasadena to Nantucket to London?

That would be Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who focuses most of her legislative work on measures to improve the lives of women and families. Shelley Rubin, one of the owners of the Rubin Art Museum, then donated $5,000 right back to Gillibrand’s political action committee, Off the Sidelines, later the same year.

Al Jazeera America combed through the year-end Federal Election Commission filings of some of the most active PACs, looking for the more creative ways lawmakers choose to spend money to make money.  

None of the disbursements detailed above were made directly by the lawmaker’s offices or official campaign apparatuses, but rather by their affiliated PACs. Cantor and Hoyer, along with dozens of other lawmakers, run leadership PACs — operations intended to leverage their star power in order to raise money on behalf of their colleagues.

The committees eventually write checks to fund the campaigns of fellow lawmakers, which in turn helps high-ranking members call in favors and wrangle votes when needed. Gillibrand’s political action committee, though not a leadership PAC, was formed with the intent of electing women candidates to office.

These PACs in recent years have earned a reputation for financing lavish trips and extravagant soirees with lobbyists and other high-dollar political contributors.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s leadership PAC, Majority Committee, for instance, spent nearly $100,000 on charter flights in 2013. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Searchlight Leadership Fund cut a check for more than $3,000 to an Apple store for “office equipment and donor gifts,” and $7,000 for catering from the ritzy Charlie Palmer Steak. Speaker John Boehner’s leadership PAC, Freedom Project, paid Virginia-based Epiphany Productions, an event management company, $62,000 for “fundraising consulting”; another $6,000 was spent on booze from Congressional Liquors during 2013.

Many of the offices of lawmakers contacted for this story said the members participating in these events were simply being team players, doing their bit to help their party.

“Venues aren’t free, catering isn’t free. You make a small investment and you have significant return on that investment,” said Glen Caplin, Gillibrand’s spokesperson, noting that the fundraiser at the Rubin Museum made a six-figure haul to support the campaigns of other women candidates. “(The senator is) working hard to not only recruit women candidates to run, but when they do run, to help ensure they have resources to win.”

Caplin added that Gillibrand had spent time traversing all 62 counties in New York, speaking to constituents.

A spokesman for Boehner similarly pointed out that the speaker raised $54 million in support of other Republicans in 2013 and that his political work often involved long stretches on the road.

Regarding Hoyer's Puerto Rican beach getaway, Stephanie Young, a spokeswoman for the congressman, said in a statement: “This is an event Mr. Hoyer holds to support Democrats and help Democrats win back the House majority.”

The glitz and glamour of the D.C. fundraising and schmoozing circuit is, of course, nothing new, and most falls within the official ethics rules. Nonetheless, as the cost of modern campaigns has risen to unprecedented levels, the hunt for dollars has also intensified, leading to lawmakers finding ever more interesting and expedient ways to wring money out of big donors, according to campaign finance experts. In 2012, the total cost of congressional elections topped $3.6 billion.

Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit transparency organization, explained the allure of a luxury fundraiser: “You can get a whole lot of wallets in one room.”

Some find it particularly galling that political contributions are subsidizing this kind of lifestyle for the nation’s legislators, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle lament the disintegrating middle class and the ravages of poverty.

“It’s one of those phenomena that makes people feel alienated, that there are people here who are leading a lifestyle very different from the people who are trying to live on a minimum wage or trying to get their kids health care coverage,” Kiely said. “Members are really walking from a vote to a handshake with a big donor and back to the floor, and you just don’t know what kind of effect that has on people’s thinking.”

A paper released last year by the liberal economic think tank Demos further posited that lawmakers’ reliance on the affluent to fund their elections has demonstrably skewed economic policy.

“As private interests have come to wield more influence over public policy, with ever larger sums of money shaping elections and the policymaking process, our political system has become less responsive to those looking for a fair shot to improve their lives and move upward,” wrote the authors. “Wealthy interests are keenly focused on concerns not shared by the rest of the American public.”

Other critics lament that average Americans lack any awareness of exactly how their elected officials are using a sizable chunk of their time in Washington.

“If regular people knew how much time members of Congress spent fundraising and where they were raising money, they would be shocked,” said Adam Smith, the communications director for Public Campaign, an organization advocating for a public campaign-financing system. “They elect these people because they expect their lawmakers to do their job, and when they get here, they’re having fancy dinners and flying off to resort towns with people who are definitely not their constituents.”

But, activists complain, all the activity is often taking place away from the public eye.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter