Political consultants pocket taxpayers’ money

Members of Congress are turning to the same political consultants who got them elected to blast taxpayer-funded communications from their government offices, records show.

Why is this important: Although these members are not allowed to enter politics with official funds, the companies have expertise in enhancing the image of elected officials for political purposes and are in high demand for campaigning and government work.

By the numbers: Since 2016, at least 251 current and former members of the House have used their congressional office budgets to pay vendors who have also worked for their campaigns, according to an Axios analysis of congressional disbursements and campaign finance records.

  • Some consultancies even tripled: they worked for members’ official offices, their campaigns, and the independent political spenders — including PACs — who worked to get those members elected.
  • Together, the more than 100 companies operating on both sides of the official/political divide removed nearly $39 million in public funds from the congressional offices of members they helped elect, records show.
  • An Axios analysis found that payments fluctuated with election cycles: $6.2 million in 2016, $4.1 million in 2017, $9.4 million in 2018, $5.7 million in 2019, $9.9 million in 2020 and only $3.3 million in the first three quarters of 2021.

The big picture: House rules require that “stamped” communications — advertisements, direct mail and other mass communications paid for with official funds — be strictly non-political. This means they cannot influence voters to support or oppose a candidate.

  • MPs nonetheless use them to tout the legislative achievements and policy positions to the very voters they need every two years.
  • Many members have used prepaid mail to convey important information to voters, such as district availabilities and notices of federal benefits and services.
  • Others have used it to plug in more explicitly partisan efforts, like the recent postage stamped mailers calling for the impeachment of President Biden.

There are clear leaders among the list of sellers who divide the official-political divide.

  • The top companies on the Republican side are Arena and Axiom Strategies, which, though sister companies focused on outspoken communications, have each worked with more than 40 House members whose campaigns have also paid them for political services.
  • Both were also paid by independent super PACs to help elect House members with whom they worked in a political and official capacity.
  • On the Democratic side, direct mail provider Mission Control worked with 25 campaigns for House members who also paid the company’s official arm, Mail Matters.
  • Mission Control was the listed vendor for independent spend supporting eight of those customers or attacking their adversaries.

Axios contacted these companies for comment.

  • They refused or did not respond to inquiries.

What they say : Andrew Mayersohn, a researcher at OpenSecrets, says the overlap isn’t entirely surprising.

  • The universe of campaign vendors is very small, especially considering how many companies work exclusively with Democrats or Republicans,” Mayersohn said. “So you would expect to see a lot of shared vendors. ‘one way or another.”

Be smart: Messaging and communications are hallmarks of Congress in the era of the famous legislator.

  • Although not explicitly political, official communications expenditures nevertheless serve a politically complementary purpose by enhancing a member’s public image.
  • Relying on the same vendors behind their political operations provides continuity between donor-funded messaging and taxpayer dollars.

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