Interstate Commerce in Campaign Contributions


In the older and simpler days of American politics, if you gave a campaign contribution to a candidate for Congress, you had every expectation that the money would support their campaign. These days that expectation is often wrong.

For the past few election cycles – particularly since the GOP won control of Congress in 1994 – there’s been a steady increase in what you might call interstate commerce in campaign contributions. You give to a Congressman from Kentucky, say, but the money eventually winds up in Florida or Michigan, or some other district with a tight race.

Sometimes the money is given directly from one campaign to another. More often it’s passed along to the congressional party committees – a “voluntary” act that’s gradually become a de facto requirement for incumbents in Congress. The money flows both from members’ campaign committees and, if they have one, from their leadership PACs as well.

The degree to which this practice of party tithing has become widespread was noted in a story in last Thursday’s Hill newspaper. The article, by Josephine Hearn, detailed the record-breaking fundraising by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – the party fundraising machine for House Democrats.

House Democrats are required to pay between $100,000 and $600,000 in quarterly dues to the DCCC, depending on leadership positions and committee assignments. Members in the DCCC’s Frontline program — those facing tough reelection contests — are exempted from the requirement.

The lead in the news story was that only 16 Democrats had so far failed to contribute to the DCCC. Twenty-six had already met their quotas for the year.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, the Hill’s Patrick O’Connor reported that Republicans were doing the same:

Members have varying targets based on their seniority in the conference, from the lowest level of $70,000 to the top level for leaders and A-level committee chairmen of $550,000, said Carl Forti, the communications director for the NRCC.

There’s a simple reason why all this is happening, and why the volume of redirected contributions continues to grow. The vast majority of members of Congress – particularly in the House of Representatives – will not be seriously challenged in the fall elections. But some will, and in those less-than-predictable districts, both parties will be dealing with the problem in the time-honored congressional way: throwing money at it. As much money as possible.

What’s at stake is control of Congress. And not a single incumbent needs to be reminded how important that is, not only to the nation as a whole, but to their own political careers. The difference between “majority” and “minority” may be only two letters in the dictionary, but on Capitol Hill it means everything – from who gets the best office space to who controls the congressional agenda.

As annoying (or even painful) as it may be for members of Congress to raise a substantial stash of campaign money only to pass along a portion to someone else, the thought of losing the majority – or winning it – is so overwhelming that it overrides their natural instincts to keep the money for themselves.

There are ironies here which ought not be missed. Number one: for most members of Congress, the only drama in the upcoming election is not their own race – a foregone conclusion – but the overall balance of power. If most congressional races were truly competitive, candidates wouldn’t have the leeway to peel off money and send it elsewhere – they’d use the donors’ money in the district where it was given.

Second: another reason members willingly cough up so much money to the parties is their understanding that even if power doesn’t change hands, the party leadership will still be grateful to those who’ve been most generous. The fastest route to power in Washington is not to have the glibbest tongue or the brightest ideas, but to demonstrate that most coveted of political skills in the modern world: the ability to raise serious money.

I’m sure there are other ironies, but that’s enough to chew on for now.

Addendum: If you’re wondering who’s been spreading around the most money to other candidates, here’s the Open Secrets page where you can find out. These figures don’t include money given to the parties – just the amount that went directly from one member to candidates in other districts. Most of it was given through members’ leadership PACs, but a lot also moved directly from one candidate committee to another.