"... AAN is organized as a nonprofit social-welfare group [and] does not have to disclose its donors. (The Center for Responsive Politics ... listed past contributions from the American Petroleum Institute and PhRMA.) ... AAN was founded in 2010 by Fred Malek, a top Republican fundraiser. ..."
Group supporting Boehner draws ire of conservatives
WASHINGTON -- A tax-exempt group with ties to House Speaker John Boehner has spent nearly $4 million so far this year on ads seemingly designed to give House Republicans political cover for supporting the GOP leadership on tough votes – along with another $400,000 on spots blasting conservative lawmakers who gave Boehner heartburn on one major vote.
The group, called the American Action Network, has long been in the sights of campaign-finance watchdog groups, which have raised questions about whether AAN is abusing its tax-exempt status by engaging in political activity aimed at influencing federal elections.
But now, AAN has attracted the ire of some conservatives, who say it's a mouthpiece for Boehner – dedicated to shoring up the Ohio Republican when he faces trouble with his right flank.
"It's an extension of the speaker," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who was a target of one particularly controversial AAN ad and is one of the speaker's fiercest critics.
AAN officials say that's nonsense. They say the group has never crossed any lines and the speaker has no influence over its agenda.
"We are completely independent of any elected official," said Dan Conston, a spokesman for AAN. "We make our own decisions based on our own philosophical agenda. We have no connection to the leadership."
Mike Shields, who became AAN's president in January after serving as a chief of staff at the Republican National Committee, said the organization is focused on making sure the 114th Congress – with its expanded House Republican majority – doesn't fall into dysfunction and waste its historic 2014 election gains.
"There is, in the House of Representatives, an opportunity to be very functional and to get a conservative right-of-center agenda passed," Shields said.
So far this year, AAN has launched a half-dozen advocacy campaigns. One ad blitz in April was aimed at thanking 76 Republican lawmakers who voted in favor of the GOP leadership's budget blueprint, which some conservatives criticized for using budget gimmicks to plump up military spending. Another radio, mail and digital ad campaign in June encouraged undecided Republicans to support the fast-track trade bill, a priority for Boehner, by portraying it as a conservative vote that would project American strength in the world.
But it was an immigration spot that sparked the ire of conservatives. It came two months into the new Congress, when Boehner found himself facing the prospect of another partial government shutdown. Hard-charging conservatives like Huelskamp and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, wanted to use a government spending bill to block President Barack Obama's executive immigration order, which was aimed at protecting some undocumented workers from deportation.
Boehner, seeking to avoid a replay of the 2013 government shutdown, pushed a bill through the House to keep the agency open without undoing Obama's immigration policy. The move infuriated conservatives inside Boehner's GOP conference, but some of those who opposed the bill soon found themselves under attack, the subject of withering TV ads paid for by AAN.
Featuring grainy images of terrorists, the ads' narrator said: "Some in Washington are willing to put our security at risk by jeopardizing critical security funding. That's the wrong message to send to our enemies."
Huelskamp slammed AAN's efforts to pressure him and other conservatives into supporting the homeland security funding bill.
"If you've got to run to a PAC to try to get Republicans to vote for something, you've got to wonder if it's the Republican thing to do," he said in a recent interview. He said AAN's campaigns are the handiwork of Boehner's allies, noting that Barry Jackson, who worked as a top aide to Boehner for 16 years, sits on the group's board directors.
"He's clearly seen around Washington as the speaker's man," Huelskamp said of Jackson.
Shields said AAN's campaigns are determined not by anyone in the House GOP leadership but by AAN's chairman and its donors who "want us to take part in these conversations" and have helped AAN's fundraising get off to a booming start this year.
"That's given us the ability to play a larger role than we have before," he said.
AAN is organized as a nonprofit social-welfare group, a status that means it does not have to disclose its donors. (The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics, unearthed some information from the group's IRS filings, which listed past contributions from the American Petroleum Institute and PhRMA, the drug industry's lobbying arm, among others.)
Critics say AAN operates in a murky area of Washington's big-money influence game. It's part Republican establishment, with a roster of heavy-hitters at its helm. It's part dark-money operation, raising millions of dollars from undisclosed Republican donors. And it's part campaign operation, with the affiliated super PAC – called the Congressional Leadership Fund--that counts on Boehner and other GOP leaders as a major draw for its fundraising events.
"There's obviously a web here," said Stephen Spaulding, policy counsel at Common Cause, which advocates for campaign finance reform.
But where some see a web, AAN officials say there is clear separation.
AAN was founded in 2010 by Fred Malek, a top Republican fundraiser who now sits on AAN's board. The board is chaired by former Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican from Minnesota who is now a Washington lobbyist.
Shields, Malek and Coleman also have leadership posts at the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is dedicated to keeping and expanding the House Republican majority. Super PACs can accept and spend unlimited amounts of money, although they have to report their contributions and expenditures.
So far this year, Boehner has headlined two fundraisers for the CLF, both in June. Boehner's political team credits the Congressional Leadership Fund with helping Republicans win a bigger majority in the 2014 elections, when the PAC spent more than $12 million, mostly against Democratic House candidates.
"The Congressional Leadership Fund has played a leading role in conservative efforts to strengthen and expand our House majority," said a Boehner spokesman, Cory Fritz. "The speaker is proud to join our House Republican leadership team in supporting CLF's efforts to elect common-sense, pro-growth Republicans."
Conston, AAN's spokesman, emphasized that the American Action Network and the Congressional Leadership Fund are two distinct organizations. He said critics who say AAN is connected to Boehner are conflating the two groups and assuming – wrongly – that Boehner's role in helping the super PAC means he also has some influence at AAN.
"To the extent that members of (House Republican) leadership can raise money or actively help (with the CLF), we don't shy away from that at all," Conston said.
For now, Shields said, AAN will stay focused on making sure Republicans don't get sidetracked by internal fights. Just last week, the group launched a new ad – thanking two Georgia Republicans for their votes to extend the highway trust fund, another potentially thorny issue for conservatives.
"They are two members of Congress who are conservatives, no question, and they took a vote to continue the highway funding," Shields told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We want to make sure they understand that we agree with that vote and we hope they continue to pursue a conservative perspective on ensuring that the economy is improved and commerce can continue to flourish."