In the race for 2012 campaign cash, congressional Democrats and Republicans are using a controversial tactic to solicit big donors: selling access to top staff in Congress.
Lawmakers have long given their time to lobbyists and contributors in exchange for campaign checks. Increasingly, their aides are offering themselves up for money, as well.
An invitation to a February fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee promises, in bold face, that the chiefs of staff to six lawmakers will attend. The names of the staffers, each of whom is an aide to a member of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, appear larger than those of their bosses. Donors are asked to spend up to $15,000 to attend the reception and dinner.
Meanwhile, the political arm of House Republicans, the National Republican Campaign Committee, is promising its biggest donors in 2012—those interest groups that give the legal maximum of $15,000 this year—tickets to two “chiefs of staff receptions.” In addition, those top contributors will also be invited to quarterly luncheons that feature “Republican Party leaders and key staff.”
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a public-interest group, said the selling of face time with staff—“influence-buying at its worst,” she called it—is the unseemly new normal in Washington.
“It becomes more brazen every year,” McGehee said of the linkage between access to staff and money. “Something that was once considered both a violation of ethics and in bad taste—now it is pretty commonplace.”
Legally, congressional aides are allowed to work on their members’ campaigns—and even solicit campaign contributions—so long as it is outside of the Capitol, does not use federal resources, and is not done during formal work hours.
Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the DCCC, defended the February event. “Both parties do these types of fundraisers, and we appreciate everything these staff members are doing to help win a Democratic majority,” he said, noting the staffers were volunteering their time.
The NRCC did not return calls for comment.
The trend of congressional aides headlining political fundraisers is not entirely new. All four of the political campaign arms in Congress have offered contact with aides of lawmakers in recent years to loosen lobbyists’ wallets.
In 2011, for instance, Senate Democrats held a “Friends of the Hill” dinner for donors who made a suggested contribution of $10,000. Among those advertised to be in attendance was David Krone, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
But Bill Allison, editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation, which collects and publishes congressional fundraising invitations, said advertising staff attendance is still “somewhat unusual,” though growing more common.
The problem, Allison said, is that after attending such an event, top congressional aides know clearly who big contributors are and “will probably be more sensitive to the contributors’ issues than to the general public.”
For the Democrats’ fundraiser this February, the aide listed atop the invitation is Kate Winkler, chief of staff to Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., who chairs the New Democrat Coalition. Crowley was among a group of lawmakers investigated by the House Ethics Committee in 2010 and 2011 for the “appearance that special treatment or access was provided to campaign donors” during the drafting of the legislation overhauling the financial industry. Winkler was interviewed as part of the probe.
Crowley was ultimately cleared in the case. Documents released after the inquiry was complete showed Crowley’s fundraising consultant offered to set up coffee dates between donors and the congressman. Winkler did not respond to an e-mail asking for comment on Tuesday, nor did any of the other featured aides in next month’s DCCC event.
This article appears in the Jan. 18, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.