Camaraderie, social life, a built-in sense of family. This and more fraternities and sororities offer their members, especially at schools so large they can feel as much like big businesses as academic institutions. Yet business-like powerhouses are what Greek organizations have become, with the accompanying influence on campus and far beyond. Collectively, U.S. fraternities and sororities have massive real estate holdings, millions of dollars rolling through their bank accounts, and direct lines to the halls of power. They even have that telltale marks of the formidable Washington player: a political action committee and lobbyists (Find out how much your representative gets).
In 2005, the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee (FSPAC, often nicknamed “FratPAC”) was founded “to protect the fraternal experience,” as its website states. Greek organizations wielded influence in Washington long before that, though. Throughout the late 1900s, most members of Congress had been fraternity men in college, according to the PAC’s Executive Director Kevin O'Neill. The North American Interfraternity Council lists 19 U.S. presidents as frat members, including those holding honorary memberships and those initiated as alumni, like former President Bill Clinton.
But by the turn of the millennium, the percentage in Congress had dropped. Neither President Barack Obama, nor President-elect Donald Trump were members. And of the current 535 current members of the U.S. House and Senate, approximately a quarter were Greek in college (Vice President-elect Mike Pence was in Phi Gamma Delta).
O’Neill, a veteran corporate attorney and Washington lobbyist, has said the PAC was founded to get more Greek alumni back to Washington. He told Fusion the PAC “exists to support Greeks running for Congress or to support those in office who value the fraternal experience.” He also has emphasized the group’s desire to make sure women, and particularly sorority women, have the resources to run competitive campaigns.
The PAC collects money from fraternity and sorority chapters, as well as individual donors, and gives it to politicians who support their position on a host of issues like reforming tax laws to help fraternities; fighting hazing and substance abuse; protecting students’ rights to join Greek organizations; and protecting an exemption to Title IX, which effectively lets fraternities and sororities remain single-sex organizations.
O’Neill insists the PAC itself doesn’t lobby, nor does it take a stand on specific issues. Its job is to inform donors about legislation that could affect fraternities and sororities. Yet as with many interest groups in Washington, the lines between campaign donations and lobbying are often blurred. The PAC’s own newsletter highlights its Capitol Hill lobbying trips for college students. And the PAC spends a good chunk of the money it raises on a $500 a plate fundraiser where donors can mingle with fellow Greek alumni and lawmakers.
O’Neill himself wears a number of hats for the Greek system. Besides being its executive director, the PAC has described him to donors as “our lead lobbyist in Washington.” He is also the official spokesman and chief lobbyist for the Fraternal Government Relations Coalition, a loose association the PAC cofounded along with two of the largest Greek system umbrella organizations. In 2016, the Government Fraternal Relations Coalition paid O’Neill and his colleagues $150,000 to lobby Congress, according to federal disclosure forms.
"There are many reasons why survivors/victims choose not to report incidences of sexual assault to law enforcement."
The PAC has also been clear about legislation it believes will benefit its members, including a controversial 2015 bill that sought to restrict universities’ ability to investigate sexual assaults if a victim had not first filed a complaint with police.
The bill, co-sponsored in 2015 by one of the PAC’s top recipients in Congress, Texas Republican, U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, was called the Safe Campus Act, and its backers said it would balance protection of students’ constitutional rights while providing measures to improve safety on campus. Critics ranging from established university associations to campus activists argued the bill would do anything but.
“There are many reasons why survivors/victims choose not to report incidences of sexual assault to law enforcement,” The Association of Public & Land-grant Universities wrote in a letter of opposition.
“The Safe Campus Act would substantially undermine the ability of institutions of higher education to prevent and respond to campus sexual assaults and would have a dangerous chilling effect on the willingness of survivors/victims to report sexual assaults.”
Even so, the PAC framed that bill and another similar measure called the Fair Campus Act, which would have required a higher burden of proof for campuses to adjudicate sexual assaults, as important reforms. In a 2015 newsletter, O’Neill said the Safe Campus Act would improve campus safety and ensure that each student and organization involved in a sexual assault case would be treated fairly.
Greek-oriented organizations, meanwhile, formed still another group, called the Safe Campus Coalition, to promote the bills. Once again, they enlisted the support of lobbyists from O’Neill’s law firm at the time, Squire Patton Boggs, including O’Neill and former Republican U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, of Mississippi. That year, the Safe Campus Coalition paid O’Neill’s firm $250,000.
Following the widespread outcry by rape victims, advocates and academics, the Greek system’s umbrella organizations, the North-American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference, ultimately rescinded their support for the Safe Campus Act. Neither it, nor the Fair Campus Act, ever made it to the floor.
That might seem like a loss for Greek power in Washington, except that’s not the whole story. There was a third bill that year seeking to tackle sexual assault on campus that the PAC did not support. That bill, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, was up for committee hearing the day the Greek system-backed bills were unveiled. McCaskill’s proposal would have boosted support for victims and required universities to keep better records about campus-related sex offenses. In other words, it would have made it easier to hold college and university administrations, as well as fraternities and other groups, accountable. McCaskill’s bill never made it out of committee either, leaving in place the status-quo.
Greek-related organizations have faced some criticism for their stepped-up lobbying efforts. In late 2011, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) announced to much fanfare that she would introduce a bill to help curb hazing following the brutal death of Florida A&M University student Robert Champion during a band hazing ritual.
That might seem like a loss for Greek power in Washington, except that’s not the whole story.
Yet as first reported by Bloomberg in 2013, Wilson opted not to file the anti-hazing bill she’d promised not long after meeting with O’Neill and others from the Greek system. That year, the PAC began giving to Wilson, donating a total of $3,000 as of 2016.
Wilson’s original bill -- which sought to cut federal scholarships and loans for students who participated in hazing -- was by many accounts flawed. Still, the congresswoman never introduced a revised version, nor any other anti-hazing legislation.
O’Neill later acknowledged the Fraternal Government Relations Coalition had a had a series of conversations with Wilson. O’Neill argued hazing was a crime better left to local authorities, although in only nine states can hazing be prosecuted as a felony.
Wilson, herself a member of the historically black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, said the PAC hadn’t influenced her. She recently told Fusion she hasn’t filed a bill because she didn’t want to interfere with a civil lawsuit that Robert Champion’s family had brought against Florida A&M. Reminded that the lawsuit was settled in 2015, Wilson said she was now planning to file the bill in 2017 but later clarified: “I will file the bill if I feel like it.”
O’Neill declined to discuss with Fusion its 2017-2018 agenda ahead of the new Congress, but according to its most recent newsletter, the PAC remains focused on a slightly less controversial measure: the Collegiate Housing and Infrastructure Act, a perennial bill that would change the IRS code to make donations for improvements of Greek housing fully tax-deductible. Wilson is a sponsor of this legislation.
Fusion took a look at the PAC’s filings with the Federal Elections Commission to get an idea of who on Capitol Hill receives the most money from the Greek system. Here’s what we found:
The PAC gives to both Democrats and Republicans. In the most recent fundraising cycle, the PAC gave more than $274,000 to campaigns -- about a third to Democrats, and two-thirds to Republicans. But it spent even more on administrative and fundraising costs. The PAC shelled out $376,247 on its annual gala, social media and other administrative costs, including about $90,000 on legal and compliance expenses. O’Neill said some of the legal expenditures were one-time payments “to prepare for more activity in the future,” but he declined to elaborate.
Among the top recipients in the last election cycle: Texas Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions received $10,000, as did Montana U.S. Rep. Senator Roy Blunt, and their fellow GOP colleague, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr from North Carolina. Emily Cain, a former Democrat Maine State Senator, received $10,000 for her unsuccessful 2016 run for the U.S. House of Representatives. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan received $5,000.
Like many other Washington players, it’s tough to tease out all the ways the Greek system exerts its influence in Washington. Yet that influence is only likely to grow. In 2006, its first year of operation, the PAC took in just over $300,000. A decade later, that annual haul has nearly doubled.