Supercommittee At Risk With Campaign Donors

Aug 16, 2011

The 12 lawmakers on the new deficit-cutting supercommittee have their hands full. They're under orders to bring Congress a plan for cutting the deficit by more than a trillion dollars, and to do it before Thanksgiving.

At the same time, they're also raising funds for their next campaigns, and that could be a problem if the supercommittee is under pressure to bite the hand that feeds them money.

Last week, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that concerns about supercommittee members and their fundraising are silly.

"Elected members of Congress are responsible; they take an oath, they are responsible to serve their constituents and their country," Carney said. "We expect every member on that committee to take that responsibility seriously and the mandate that committee has."

With the exception of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who's retiring next year, all of the other committee members plan to stay in Congress. And that means raising money for re-election, much of it through fundraisers and sponsored events.

In two weeks, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) has a fundraising reception sponsored by the political action committee, or PAC, for investment companies. They'll be interested in tax policy, loopholes and a host of other things. And early next month, Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, has a "food, fun & wine" event. One sponsor of the event is the PAC of the Pfizer drug company, likely to be concerned about Medicare and Medicaid.

To look at the broad sweep of who gives to these 12 lawmakers, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics ran the numbers back to 1989.

According to Sheila Krumholz, the center's director, the number one source of contributions was The Club for Growth, a group that promotes smaller government and a de-regulated market. Not surprising, every penny of their $1 million contribution went to Republicans.

"Microsoft was second, with $944,000," she says. That's money from employees and its PAC.

Democrats on the committee got almost all of it, especially their co-chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), whose state is where Microsoft's home base is located.

There are many other ways to parse the donor numbers; by industry by party and so forth. But the point is, when the super committee meets it will be pressured to cut funds from some of those very groups that helped them get elected.

Sen. Murray, for instance, ran an ad last year during her reelection that reminded voters how she helped Boeing land a controversial Air Force contract. In Washington state, 79,000 residents work for Boeing.

But now the super committee has to consider whacking billions out of the Pentagon budget, and Murray will help to decide if big contracts, likely including some for Boeing, end up on the cutting board.

Potential Solutions

The Sunlight Foundation says one answer to these potential conflicts is transparency. Committee members should disclose campaign contributions immediately online. It's a popular notion. [[These last two statements need an attribution]]

"Clearly more transparency in government is never a bad idea," says David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Schultz says lawmakers don't bond with donors or lobbyists in just a few weeks. These things evolve over years.

"So to simply isolate this small little period of time and say we can render them pure ... for 3 months, 6 months, or 9 months – [it's] not going to work."

As for the super committee's work, much of it will be done in September and October, two months that are also prime fundraising season on Capitol Hill.

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