When a candidate spends $29,000 from his campaign treasury to buy a sport utility vehicle — as did Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., last fall — it tends to draw attention.
It's a perfectly legal but profoundly strange purchase, one his donors likely didn't have in mind. It's also what you'd expect from a congressional campaign that isn't worried about losing and has money to burn.
Boucher is now in a close race — close enough that he may worry as he rolls about his southwest Virginia district in his new Ford Edge, which the Roanoke Times reports was bought “with a mix of campaign funds and personal money in such a way that he can use it for official, campaign and limited personal business.”
But this purchase proves that the time, money and effort it takes to get elected to Congress are all well worth it. In what other job can you get lobbyists, industry groups and special interests to help you buy a top-of-the line automobile?
Or fly you to Vail during ski season?
Boucher's leadership PAC, the Committee for Southwest Virginia, has spent something north of $40,000 this cycle for lodging, catering, airfare and car rental for what appear to be late-winter jaunts to the Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa in Avon, Colo.
There appear to have been two trips, apparently fundraisers, taken in early 2009 and 2010. (Boucher's campaign spokeswoman did not respond to my inquiries in time for publication.)
The combined hotel bill at the Westin is $36,000. Catering from Chef De Cuisine Epicurean Services, the Juniper Restaurant in nearby Edwards, and Vail Catering Concepts, cost $4,100.
Politicians use leadership PACs to expand their power base by doling out money to congressional colleagues and challengers. According to Federal Election Commission records, Boucher's PAC has spent more on Colorado hotel rooms than it has helping his fellow Democrats weather the electoral storms of 2009 and 2010.
Having raised more than $300,000 this cycle, the Committee for Southwest Virginia has given just $9,000 to U.S. House candidates (not counting the $5,000 he gave his own campaign). It also gave $25,500 for Virginia's local and state elections in 2009.
This cycle, contributions to other candidates make up half the spending by the leadership PAC of Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. Such contributions make up three-quarters of the spending by liberal California Rep. George Miller's Solidarity PAC. They account for about one-quarter of Boucher's PAC spending.
Before 2009, the Committee for Southwest Virginia had never been a political powerhouse. It had never raised more than $61,000 in a single election cycle, and it relied on a handful of corporate PACs to supply nearly the whole amount. You could count its individual contributors on one hand. When it did spend, most (or, as in 2006, all) of the money went to other Democrats.
This changed in early 2009. Boucher, the third-ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, served as the floor manager for an important telecommunications bill. The Committee for Southwest Virginia suddenly came to life and raised five times its previous record.
Employees of DISH Network kicked in $23,000, and the company's PAC contributed $5,000 more, as did the PAC of its rival, DirecTV. Comcast's PAC maxed out with $10,000, as did the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the Consumer Electronics Association, CenturyLink, Qwest Communications, T-Mobile, AT&T and GoDaddy.com.
The PACs of Sprint, Viacom and Verizon chipped in between $5,000 and $7,500 apiece. Lobbyists from several high-profile firms became first-time donors. When you add it up, that's enough for a whole fleet of SUVs.
A recent Rasmussen poll found that 61 percent of Americans would not run for Congress, even if they thought they could win. They probably just don't know enough about what it's like to be in Congress.
David Freddoso is The Examiner's online opinion editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.