(Photo of Russ Feingold in Public Domain)

By John Kaufman

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s columnist Dan Bice looked up  former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold’s Progressives United PAC on OpenSecrets.org and found that a lot more was spent on fundraising and staff salaries than on direct contributions to candidates. This was supposedly big news because Feingold has championed campaign finance reform and here he is using a PAC to employ himself and others and promote progressive causes. Well, at least Feingold did not stoop to corporate lobbying.

Bice compared the PU PAC to current Sen. Ron Johnson’s Strategy PAC and found that two-thirds of Strategy PAC money went to candidate contributions. But this is like comparing mountains to canyons. For one thing, Johnson is a millionaire and Feingold is not. And Johnson’s PAC is a typical one created solely for passing dough to political friends.

Progressives United was intended to be primarily an organizer and motivator of progressive action, not a typical direct contributor to Democratic candidates. Much is made in the column of how much money went toward PU PAC fundraising, administration and salaries, including Feingold’s, but, as mentioned by some in the column, the PU PAC had a different mission.

For a fundraising comparison, let’s look at Rep. Paul Ryan’s PAC– Prosperity PAC, a typical contributor to candidates.  In 2012, nearly 67% of Prosperity’s expenditures went to fundraising, says OpensSecrets, while the PU PAC fundraising percentage for 2012 was about 50%.  The amount of fundraising one must do and pay for may depend on how popular one’s cause or name is.

As for salaries, in 2012 the promoter of pro-choice female candidates, Emily’s List, had a salaries expenditure of 25% while Progressives United PAC spent not quite 19% on salaries. Emily’s List also spent a large chunk of cash (almost 15%) on administrative costs that year, fairly close to the amount spent by PU PAC– 19.5%. Yes,  Ryan’s PAC and Emily’s List contributed a large share of their total money directly to candidates, but that is primarily what they, unlike PU, were formed to do.

So Bice’s gotcha column is rather underwhelming when some perspective is applied. Yea, Feingold and his former staffers needed a job (not being millionaires) and they used the PAC system to help progressive causes and candidates while supporting themselves. Generally, this is called non-profit private enterprise, though one could argue about what an appropriate progressive, non-profit salary should be. Of course, we could do away with PAC’s completely. One progressive cause that certainly needs more support from politicos and voters is public campaign financing, and Feingold is right to challenge Johnson to at least eschew third-party spending in the upcoming Senate campaign.

P.S.— For Feingold’s reaction to this story and Bice’s reaction to Feingold’s reaction, visit the Journal Sentinel. 

P.P.S. And JS columnist Christian Schneider explains, in his inimitable way, why it is “a big deal” that Feingold is no political saint. Schneider and Bice claim that Feingold’s email to supporters blames the Bice column on Sen. Ron Johnson. I haven’t seen the email, but the portion Bice provides makes a distinction between the Johnson response and Bice’s column:

“The GOP says that starting Progressives United is ‘the ultimate hypocrisy,'” Feingold wrote. “And a recent article tried to call out our grassroots organization for paying its workers, because in their eyes paying people to work is apparently a bad thing.”

Unless you are a millionaire, raising lots of money, unfortunately, is now what all successful politicians must do under the current system. Because Feingold has tried to reform the system in some small way, he’s now a “hypocrite” for making use of it. And because Bice and JS need to appear politically neutral after all their coverage of “John Doe”, they have puffed this issue up to create “Democrats behaving badly.” Of course, there is no real comparison between Feingold and Johnson in terms of political courage and intellectual depth. And now that the 2010 tea party binge is over and the great Wisconsin Hangover has commenced, the state will hopefully make a better decision in the next election.

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