Updated Jan 18, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Political consultants pocket taxpayer cash

Illustration of hands grasping money, all surrounding the US Capitol building.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

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

Why it matters: While those members are barred from politicking with official funds, the firms have expertise in boosting elected officials' images for political gain and are in high demand for both campaign and government work.

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

  • Some consulting firms have even triple-dipped: they worked for members' official offices, their campaigns and independent political spenders — including PACs — that worked to get those members elected.
  • Together, the 100-plus firms operating on both sides of the official/political divide have pulled in nearly $39 million in taxpayer funds from the congressional offices of members they helped elect, the records show.
  • An Axios analysis found the payments ebbed and flowed 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 just $3.3 million through the first three quarters of 2021.

The big picture: House rules require "franked" communications — ads, mailers and other mass communications paid with official funds — to be strictly apolitical. That means they can't push voters to support or oppose a candidate.

  • Members nonetheless use them to tout legislative accomplishments and policy stances to the very constituents whose support they need every two years.
  • Many members used franked mail to relay important information to constituents, such as district availabilities and notices about federal benefits and services.
  • Others have used it to plug more explicitly partisan efforts, such as recent franked mailers calling for President Biden's impeachment.

There are some clear leaders among the list of vendors splitting the official-political divide.

  • The top firms on the Republican side are Arena and Axiom Strategies, which, though sister companies focused on franked communications, have each worked with more than 40 House members whose campaigns also paid them for political services.
  • Both have also been paid by independent super PACs to help elect House members they've worked with in political and official capacities.
  • On the Democratic side, direct mail vendor Mission Control has worked with 25 campaigns for House members who've also paid the firm's official-side arm, Mail Matters.
  • Mission Control has been the listed vendor for independent expenditures supporting eight of those clients or attacking their opponents.

Axios reached out to those firms for comment.

  • They either declined or did not respond to the inquiries.

What they're saying: Andrew Mayersohn, a researcher at OpenSecrets, says the overlap isn't altogether surprising.

  • "The universe of campaign vendors is very small, especially when you consider the number of firms that work exclusively with either Democrats or Republicans," Mayersohn said. "So, you'd expect to see a lot of shared vendors one way or another."

Be smart: Messaging and communications are congressional hallmarks in the era of the celebrity legislator.

  • While not explicitly political, official communications expenditures nonetheless serve a politically complementary purpose in boosting a member's public image.
  • Relying on the same vendors behind their political operations provides a seamlessness between messaging funded by donor and taxpayer money.
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