Russ Feingold–The Father of Campaign Finance Reform–Finds Himself in Hot Water Over PAC Spending

Russ Feingold is known as the father of campaign finance reform. During his tenure as a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Feingold was a vehement critic of the role of money in elections and an enormous proponent of campaign finance reform. He, along with Sen. John McCain, authored a landmark bill, which came to be known simply as McCain-Feingold, that banned unlimited “soft money” fundraising by party leaders and politicians.

But when Feingold opened up a Political Action Committee—one of the fundraising entities he had long fought—following his 2010 reelection loss eyebrows were raised. How could the man who built a career on speaking out against the pernicious influence of money in politics suddenly take a job working to raise money to inject into politics? Nevertheless, Feingold largely got a pass because his PAC’s stated mission was to raise money to reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, which overturned the ban or corporate spending on independent campaign activities.

The former three-term senator never lost his desire to get back in the fray. Earlier this year Feingold announced he was jumping into the Senate race and he would be doing it off of a platform of campaign finance reform.

“People tell me all the time that our politics in Washington are broken and that multimillionaires, billionaires and big corporations are calling all the shots,” Feingold said in his announcement video. “They especially say this about the U.S. Senate, and it’s hard not to agree.”

What turned out to be broken was Feingold’s political action committee. Earlier this week the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel broke the story that PAC money was used almost exclusively to support salaries for Feingold allies who had lost their jobs following his defeat to Ron Johnson. Daniel Bice reports:

Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold — long a champion of campaign finance reform — founded a political action committee that has given a mere 5% of its income to federal candidates and political parties.

Instead, nearly half of the $7.1 million that Progressives United PAChas spent since 2011 has gone to raising more money for itself, according to data compiled by The data also show the group has paid another sizable chunk of money on salaries or consulting fees for Feingold, his top aide and eight former staffers.

All told, the PAC spent $1.2 million on salaries and $1.3 million on fundraising compared to only $352,008 that went to federal candidates and political parties since 2011. Feingold himself received $77,000 from the two groups, not counting the PAC’s purchase of 100 leather-bound copies and 1,000 hardcopies of the ex-senator’s book.

Feingold’s opponent, Sen. Ron Johnson rightfully lashed out at the hypocrisy.

“Senator Feingold has become just like every other career politician in Washington, saying one thing while doing another,” Johnson said. “He uses a dark money slush fund to pay his political expenses and even pay himself, all while railing against that exact same kind of dark money.”

As if to prove the point, Feingold used the story, and Johnson’s response, in an email blast to supporters in an effort to raise more money.

“Ron Johnson is so desperate to hold on to his seat that he’ll throw the kitchen sink at me in this election,” Feingold wrote in the email. “But it’s especially telling that their first shot was to attack me for my work at Progressives United.”

At the bottom of the email he then asks recipients to donate $5 to help his campaign. And in the ultimate coup de grace of irony, he then provides a link that sends recipients to a fundraising portal with a minimum suggested donation of $10 and a maximum of $5,400. That pretty much sums up Feingold – saying one thing and doing another until the bitter end (which hopefully will be coming soon).


Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore