<p class="MsoNormal">The Washington Post is <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/16/AR2006101601120.html">reporting today</a> that GOP candidates in close congressional races have a big advantage in campaign funds over the Democrats that are trying to send them packing. While this isn’t exactly a surprising revelation – in fact, the opposite would be real page one news – it’s at least one bright note for the party’s beleaguered standard-bearers in a year that’s probably not going to go their way.</p> <p class="MsoNormal">Does it matter? Personally, I don’t think so. I’d argue – <a href="1266">as I did a couple of weeks ago</a> – that in this year’s political climate, it’s not the spending difference between the candidates that so important. Rather, it’s the amount of money raised by the challenger. </p>
...to personal uses, it appears that Sen. Harry Reid, hot on the heels of amending his financial disclsoure reports to accurately report the details of a land deal, has also decided to reimburse his campaign $3,300 after using it as a petty cash stash to donate to a fund that buys Christmas gifts for the support staff who work in the building (which happens to be a Ritz-Carlton) where he has his Washington area home.
Incidentally, I tend to be much closer to the Captain Ed Morissey view of this--that additional spade work is warrented--as opposed to the Paul Kiel view--that the Associated Press's initial story doesn't add up.
It's not just because of the name that I like the idea behind this new report (actually, the first installment of a new report) from Public Citizen's Congress Watch: it brings together several kinds of information on members of Congress in one place. It lets users look at contribution totals to incumbents from lobbyists, PACs, donors who don't live in the member's home state, small (under $200) donors, as well information on the junkets that members and their staff have taken. It also provides nice summary data by state (here's New York, for example).
Incredible!--in less than two days, a virtual investigative team dug through campaign finance records for 435 current members of Congress, trying to find out of they paid their spouses from campaign funds. There were 24 of us (myself included--I looked up six members) who left our names, and 83 members investigated by anonymous researchers. I'm not sure whether that's actually 83 individual researchers, or one very industrious but bashful person, or some total in between, but our tech folks should be able to give us some idea of what the actual number of participants was.
Citizen journalists have now investigated 258 members of Congress, and tentatively identified a dozen spouses who've been cumulativel paid $455,539. Incredible. A huge thanks to all who've participated--whether you've done one, two or dozens. A special thanks to KCinDC, who's been an indefatigable machine, and to VaAntiRepublican, who's chipped in a couple of dozen.
And remember, this is only phase one of a multipronged investigation into family members of members of Congress who work in the political system as fundraisers, for political action committtees, or as lobbyists,
It's about seven hours since we launched the Congressional Spouse Project, and citizen journalists have investigated 170 members of Congress! Thanks to everyone who's made the effort, and remember--only 265 members to go!
Also remember that this is just phase one--we've got plenty more areas to dig into. Stay tuned, and again, thanks to all of you who've gotten us off to such a great start!
Update:10:45--about 15 minutes to go to the end of Battlestar Galactica--and we're up to 209 members checked. Incredible!
One of the many inequities in our current campaign finance system involves the rules on so-called "Section 527" organizations (named after the section of the Internal Revenue Code that establishes them). Current campaign finance law bars federally elected officials and candidates for federal office--Representatives, Senators, President and Vice President--from having such groups, which can raise funds in unlimited amounts from any source (including directly from labor unions and corporations). That law only applies to federal elections (that is, to those running for or holding federal office), but state officials--including governors--can use 527 funds to promote themselves right up to the moment that they officially declare themselves to be a federal candidate.
Rep. Richard Pombo did it with his wife and his brother. In his 2004 presidential campaign, Sen. Joseph Lieberman did it with his children. Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay did it with his wife and daughter. All have hired relatives to work on their campaigns, paying them salaries out of special interest contributions. Our system of campaign finance is often called "legalized bribery," in which special interests donate tens of thousands of dollars to a member's campaign committee in the hopes of advancing their own issues. Some members of Congress, by hiring their spouses, in effect use their campaign treasury to supplement their own bank accounts. The practice is legal, disclosed in obscure corners of campaign finance reports, and rarely mentioned by those who cover campaigns. And now citizen journalists can investigate it!
One of the safest assumptions you can make in the world of politics is that the more money you have, compared to your opponent, the better your chances of winning. But even the safest assumptions are sometimes wrong, and there’s one special case where an abundance of money can do more harm than good: when the voters already know who you are, don’t like you, and find each new commercial an unpleasant reminder of exactly how much they don’t like you.
After all, annoying ads, repeated endlessly, don’t suddenly start working after the 50th viewing. They only build resentment, and that’s true whether the advertiser is a pain reliever or a political candidate.
Campaign finance stories are often difficult to tell in print, let alone on television. You often need charts and graphs to illustrate where the money is coming from, you need to explain the rules of the system and then the ways to get around those rules, and generally you end up with far more correlation than causation: special interests give money to politicians who favor their agendas, but absent quid pro quos, you end up with politicians avowing that contributions had nothing to do with their votes.
That's one reason, I think, why election coverage often focuses more on the horse race and the superficial issues than on more substantial issues, like why are particular interests or industries donating thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars to a particular candidate? Who are the folks packing rooms with 30 or 50 or 100 people all writing $500, $1,000 or $2,000 checks to the candidate? And what will these people want come January?