WASHINGTON — Later this week, politically connected individuals will gather on the 12th floor of a modern building about five blocks from the U.S. Capitol to spend a few minutes with Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

The cost: $1,000 to attend, or $2,500 to be labeled a “host,” according to an invitation to the event posted online.

In early May, about 125 people converged on a townhouse in a posh corner of Capitol Hill for a lobster bake to help fill the campaign coffers of Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine. A $1,000 donation merited “friend” status, but $2,500 or $5,000 earned the giver the designation of “sponsor” or “host.”

Running for Congress and staying there year after year is never a cheap proposition. But recent changes allow outside groups to play larger financial roles in political campaigns, increasing the pressure on lawmakers to start raising money for the next election as soon as the last one is done.

“There is no rest for the re-election-minded,” observed Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that keeps tabs on Washington’s political fundraising scene.

As with nearly all representatives to Congress, Maine’s delegation members receive donations from a mix of individual donors and the political action committees — or PACs — that serve as the political arms of corporations, labor unions and interest groups.

The breakdown of that mix varies considerably, however.

Current campaign finance laws cap the amount that individuals can donate to federal candidates at $2,600 per election (so $5,200 total between a primary and a general election). PACs are limited to $5,000 per candidate per election.

In the 2012 election, Michaud received $764,000 from PACs and $450,000 from individual donors, resulting in a 63 percent/37 percent mix, according to post-election campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. That mix is roughly consistent with his past elections.

On average, House incumbents across the nation raised 43 percent of their campaign cash from PACs last year, according to an analysis of figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks campaign spending.

“A member of the House of Representatives needs to run for office every two years, so there seems to be few breaks between when modern campaigns stop and start,” Michaud said in a written response to questions. Michaud did not specifically answer a question about PACs but added: “While fundraising is necessary to wage campaigns, it doesn’t take away from my constituent or legislative work.”

Maine Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, by contrast, received roughly 18 percent of her 2012 campaign funds from PACs versus 79 percent from individuals. Pingree’s 1st District is more affluent than Michaud’s 2nd District, however, and Pingree also has access to a sizable network of wealthy individuals thanks to her marriage to hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman. Sussman is majority share owner of MaineToday Media, publisher of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

During each of Collins’ last two campaigns — in 2008 and 2002 — the Republican received 58 percent of her donations from individuals and 36 percent from PACs, according to analyses of federal filings. She is up for re-election in 2014 and is ramping up her campaign.

“I have always found it difficult to ask for the funds necessary to run an effective campaign, and I am grateful to those who have been so generous in supporting my campaigns with their donations as well as their votes and oftentimes their volunteer efforts as well,” Collins said. “Throughout my public service as a U.S. senator, I have worked for greater transparency in our campaign financing system.”

Newly elected Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, relied on PACs for 15 percent — or $436,000 — of his $2.9 million campaign fund last year. Incumbent senators seeking re-election in 2012 raised roughly 20 percent of their money from PACs.

Returns on donations?

So what, if anything, do contributors get in return? While individuals may be motivated by the candidate’s political views, PACs oftentimes simply want access or name recognition, observers say.

“At the very least they want to get someone’s ear,” said Viveca Novak, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which operates the popular OpenSecrets.org campaign spending website. “They want a meeting. They want to be considered when legislation that affects them is being drafted or voted on.”

Whether or not you consider that buying favor, Novak added, “It is clearly a way for them to be heard.”
PAC contributions to congressional candidates more than doubled to $425.5 million between 1998 and 2012, although the percentage of candidates’ campaigns financed with PAC money remained relatively constant, according to studies by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.

Proving a quid pro quo between a campaign contribution and a specific vote is often difficult, if such a connection exists at all.

But corporate PACs will often favor legislators who serve on key committees with influence over their business while more ideological PACs — much like many politically engaged voters — will donate to politicians whose views align with their organization’s stance on issues.

By far the top category of PACs that have donated to Michaud throughout his career are labor unions, according to Michaud’s career profile on OpenSecrets.org. The $1.6 million in union PAC donations he has received since he was first elected in 2002 likely reflects the former mill worker’s staunch support for unions.

Labor unions were followed by ideological/single issue PACs ($511,000), health care PACs ($374,000), finance/insurance/real estate PACs ($263,000) and transportation PACs ($241,000). Michaud serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

For Pingree, labor union PACs ($540,000) and ideological/single-issue PACs ($270,000) also rank as the top two categories since she was first elected in 2008. They were followed by the defense sector ($57,000) in a possible reflection of the large contractors in her district.

The top category of PAC donors for Collins over her 16-year career, according to OpenSecrets.org, were ideological/single-issue PACs ($1 million) followed by health care ($917,000), finance/insurance/real estate ($888,000) and miscellaneous business ($813,000).

King’s numbers are much smaller after just one election. His top PAC contributors were from the health professionals sector ($47,000) followed by building trade unions ($30,000) and public sector unions ($27,500).

Shaking the money tree
The two interlocking interests of politicians’ seemingly ceaseless need for campaign cash and interest groups’ desire “to be heard” have spawned an entire schmoozing industry on Capitol Hill.

On any given day when Congress is in session there are fundraising breakfasts, lunches or dinners held at restaurants, clubs or historic townhouses in the well-heeled neighborhoods surrounding the Capitol complex. Admission to such events, which are typically sponsored by a candidate’s campaign or party, usually costs an individual $500 to $1,000 and a PAC up to $2,500.

The website PoliticalPartyTime.org, which is run by the Sunlight Foundation, maintains a calendar of events based on invitations passed along by anonymous recipients. The Collins fundraiser scheduled for this week was posted on the website. The site listed 39 fundraisers the week before Memorial Day, a time when Congress was considering such weighty issues as a new Farm Bill, immigration reform and excessive scrutiny of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service.

The Sunlight Foundation’s Drutman said political fundraising has become “a very important part of Washington.” But as members of Congress devote more time to “dialing for dollars,” Drutman said, they inevitably spend less time delving into the details of complex issues or attending committee meetings.

“You are spending two or three hours a day attending lunches, breakfasts or dinners or making phone calls, shaking the money tree so you can do it all again,” Drutman said. “It’s a trend that has been going on for decades, but every year it seems to get worse and worse.”

In her recently published book, “Fighting for Common Ground,” former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine lamented that “congressional scheduling is now at the mercy of fundraising events” and that Congress is now “experiencing a perpetual focus on campaigns and fundraising.”

PACs prefer incumbents
Former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, a Democrat who represented Maine’s 1st District for 12 years, said he never felt the pressure to raise money every week until he decided to challenge Collins in the 2008 Senate race.

“And then I had to raise money every day,” said Allen, whose race against Collins ranks as the most expensive federal race in Maine history, with a combined $14 million spent.

Now the president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, Allen recently penned a book offering his theories behind the polarization in Washington. One of the effects of the enormous flow of money through politics is it reinforces this idea that there are two competing teams, he said.

As for whether donations help sway votes, Allen said often contributions do not matter. But he acknowledged that sometimes perceptions do matter, which is why many PACs exhibit a strong preference for incumbents rather than risk losing an incumbent’s ear by supporting a challenger.

“It’s not a one-way street,” Allen said.

In fact, PACs representing nearly every major business sector devoted 70 to 80 percent of their money to incumbents during the 2010 election while typically spending 5 percent or less on challengers, the Center for Responsive Politics reported.

“PACs tend to prefer incumbents by far, particularly business PACs,” Novak said. “Businesses like stability and predictability.”

Fallout from Citizens United

Observers say a 2010 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court only intensified the money chase by opening the door to unlimited political spending by corporations, labor unions and interest groups.

The court’s Citizens United ruling created essentially a parallel universe for campaign spending with tightly regulated candidate campaigns on one track and outside groups making “independent expenditures” on another. The ruling overturned key aspects of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which Collins co-sponsored.

Unlike federal candidates, politically involved “social welfare” organizations and other outside groups are able to collect unlimited sums with no disclosure.

Allen, who as a House freshman in 1997 was heavily involved in the debate over campaign finance changes rewritten under Citizens United, said the court ruling has led to an even higher “fear factor” among incumbents.

The pressure to raise funds “has a pernicious effect on American politics because it makes every member of Congress and every candidate aware that there are several groups that, if he crosses [them], there is a huge price to pay in potential attack ads on television,” he said.

The dark side of fundraising

The implications of “dark money” — as unregulated spending by outside groups is called — were clearly evident in 2012, when such groups on all sides of the political spectrum spent more than $1 billion attempting to influence the presidential and congressional elections.

No one in Maine’s delegation has more experience with independent expenditures than King. Outside groups spent roughly $7.4 million on Maine’s Senate race last year, compared with the collective $4.3 million spent by King and his Republican and Democratic rivals.

Although King was the odds-on favorite throughout the race, the surge of outside spending changed the dynamics of the campaign.

Early anti-King ads appeared to eat into the independent’s lead and forced him to respond. Later on, a flood of pro-King ads purchased by the organization Americans Elect — backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — and other outside groups appeared to help carry King through the final stretch.

For his part, King has little positive to say about the influence of anonymous, dark money that “threatens to overwhelm” the entire campaign system.

“You have a bizarre situation where a candidate has to disclose a donor’s name, occupation and address, and somebody can give $5 million to a super PAC with no disclosure,” King said. “To call this a loophole is an understatement.”

All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation have been critical of the Citizens United decision and called for more transparency in the way that independent groups raise and spend money. Of course, as a member of Congress, King is not immune to the pressures of fundraising — even though his next election is still five years away.

Between late November and March 31, King raised roughly $78,000. Nearly $35,000 of that total came from PACs.

“It’s disclosed and that’s an important piece,” King said of PAC contributions. “If you take a $5,000 donation from the Amalgamated Shoelace Manufacturers PAC, people will know about it and can see” whether it influences a vote down the road.

Kevin Miller — 317-6256
[email protected]
Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

 

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.