Supercommittee At Risk With Campaign Donors

Aug 17, 2011
Originally published on August 17, 2011 11:12 am

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 with huge spending cuts seemingly inevitable from the supercommittee, they'll likely face pressure to bite the hands that feed them money.

Last week, White House spokesman Jay Carney said 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 and Means Committee, has a "food, fun and wine" event. One sponsor of the event is the PAC of the Pfizer drug company, likely to be concerned about Medicare and Medicaid.

Who's Giving

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 No. 1 source of contributions was The Club for Growth, a group that promotes smaller government and a deregulated market. Not surprisingly, every penny of its $1 million in contributions 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 supercommittee meets, its members will be pressured to make changes that would affect some of those very groups that helped them get elected.

Murray, for instance, ran an ad last year during her re-election campaign 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 supercommittee has to consider whacking billions out of the Pentagon budget, and Murray will help to decide whether 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. It says committee members should disclose campaign contributions immediately online.

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

But 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 three months, six months, or nine months — [it's] not going to work," he says.

As for the supercommittee'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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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

When the new congressional supercommittee meets to decide on ways to cut the deficit, it will have a lot on its hands. The 12 lawmakers on the panel are charged with bringing Congress a plan to cut the deficit by more than a trillion dollars before Thanksgiving. At the same time, most of them are also raising a different kind of money for their next campaigns. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, that could be a problem.

PETER OVERBY: You can actually find people in Washington - a few - who thinks the supercommittee members should forego fundraising. But White House spokesman Jay Carney said last week that such concerns are silly.

JAY CARNEY: Elected members of Congress are responsible - they take an oath, they are responsible to serve their constituents and their country. We expect every member on that committee to take that responsibility seriously and the mandate that committee has.

OVERBY: 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. The center's director, Sheila Krumholz, took me through the findings. The number one source of contributions?

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: The Club for Growth, giving a million dollars.

OVERBY: Every penny went to Republicans - not surprising for a group that promotes smaller government and a deregulated market.

KRUMHOLZ: Microsoft was second, with $944,000.

OVERBY: Now Krumholz is down to number three...

KRUMHOLZ: Citigroup, giving $737,000.

OVERBY: More evenly split than the Club for Growth or Microsoft. Democrats got about 60 percent.

MONTAGNE: Unidentified Man #2: Senator Murray leveled the playing field, because we should build these planes...

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

OVERBY: 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.

DAVID SCHULTZ: Clearly, more transparency in government is never a bad idea.

OVERBY: But David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, points out that lawmakers don't bond with donors or lobbyists in just a few weeks. These things evolve over years.

SCHULTZ: And so to simply isolate this small little period of time and say we can render them pure, you know, for three months, six months, or nine months - not going to work.

OVERBY: Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.