Congressional Connection Poll: Fire ‘Em All!

Add to Briefcase
Nov. 1, 2011, 3:58 a.m.

Jo­nas Broth­ers band­mem­ber Nick Jo­nas “is team­ing up with” FLO­TUS Michelle Obama “in the fight against child­hood obesity,” Dis­ney an­nounced 9/30. Obama and Jo­nas “will ap­pear in a series of pub­lic ser­vice an­nounce­ments.” Jo­nas, in one an­nounce­ment: “Did you know that get­ting up and get­ting act­ive for just 60 minutes a day is all it takes to get stronger, look bet­ter and feel great?”

“Their ini­ti­at­ive ‘Dis­ney Ma­gic of Healthy Liv­ing’ will also launch two web­sites that gives kids ideas on healthy habits and ex­er­cise activ­it­ies.” Obama: “I am thrilled to join ‘Dis­ney’s Ma­gic of Healthy Liv­ing’ ef­fort and sup­port the work these young people are do­ing to reach out to their peers and com­mu­nic­ate this power­ful mes­sage” (New York Post, 9/30).

A dec­ade after Sens. John Mc­Cain and Russ Fein­gold spear­headed sweep­ing le­gis­la­tion to re­form the cam­paign-fin­ance sys­tem, a series of ju­di­cial and le­gis­lat­ive set­backs have de­railed any hopes its ori­gin­al spon­sors had of curb­ing the in­flu­ence and amount of money spent on polit­ics.

In­stead, the in­cred­ible ex­plo­sion of money in fed­er­al elec­tions demon­strates that Mc­Cain-Fein­gold was a speed bump, at best, on the way to a dra­mat­ic growth curve that sug­gests next year’s con­tests will cost nearly $3.5 bil­lion.

All told, can­did­ates run­ning for a seat in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives spent more than $923 mil­lion in 2012, while can­did­ates run­ning for Sen­ate seats dished out $587 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to new data com­piled for the new edi­tion of Vi­tal Stat­ist­ics on Con­gress, a joint pub­lic­a­tion of the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. That’s more than eight times the amount House and Sen­ate can­did­ates spent in 1980. Sen­ate can­did­ates spent twice what they did a dec­ade ago, in 2002.

The av­er­age mem­ber of Con­gress spent $1.59 mil­lion to win his or her seat, the data show. That’s more than double the $753,274 the av­er­age win­ning can­did­ate spent in 1986, in 2012 dol­lars. Sen­ate can­did­ates spent 61 per­cent more, $10.3 mil­lion, than they did in 1986, again ad­jus­ted for in­fla­tion.

Even those num­bers un­der­state the amount of money it takes to win a com­pet­it­ive elec­tion. The vast ma­jor­ity of mem­bers of Con­gress win reelec­tion eas­ily, giv­en par­tis­an ger­ry­man­der­ing that lim­its the num­ber of truly com­pet­it­ive House dis­tricts around the coun­try. Elim­in­ate mem­bers in non­com­pet­it­ive races — Rep. Sam John­son, R-Texas, spent $972,000, while Rep. Fre­der­ica Wilson, D-Fla., spent $554,000; both re­ceived 100 per­cent of the vote — and the amount spent on con­tested races inches high­er. In­cum­bents who won with less than 60 per­cent of the vote spent an av­er­age of $2.25 mil­lion in 2012, ac­cord­ing to the data, while in­cum­bents who lost a reelec­tion bid dished out an av­er­age of $3.1 mil­lion. A chal­lenger spent an av­er­age of $1.52 mil­lion to get elec­ted in 2012.

Can­did­ates run­ning in each of the five most ex­pens­ive races last cycle spent a com­bined total of more than $10 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics. Two of those House seats, held by Demo­crats Patrick Murphy of Flor­ida and Eliza­beth Esty of Con­necti­c­ut, are likely to be battle­grounds again next year. House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, qual­i­fies as a top spend­er; his cam­paign spent a total of $21 mil­lion last year, though all but a tiny frac­tion went to help oth­er Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates. An in­de­pend­ent can­did­ate spent $7.5 mil­lion of his own money in an ef­fort to oust Demo­crat­ic Rep. Henry Wax­man in a strongly Demo­crat­ic Cali­for­nia dis­trict, while Rep. Michele Bach­mann’s de­cision to re­tire will ac­tu­ally help Min­nesota Re­pub­lic­ans keep her seat.

A key ele­ment of the Mc­Cain-Fein­gold re­forms that was aimed at re­du­cing the amount of money in polit­ics, a ban on un­reg­u­lated so-called soft money, hasn’t slowed either party. In 2002, the last cycle in which parties could raise and spend soft money, the three largest Demo­crat­ic com­mit­tees raised a total of $576 mil­lion, while their Re­pub­lic­an coun­ter­parts pulled in $657 mil­lion. In the 2012 cycle, lim­ited only to hard-money con­tri­bu­tions, Demo­crat­ic com­mit­tees raised $631 mil­lion and Re­pub­lic­an com­mit­tees pulled in $697 mil­lion.

Be­fore Mc­Cain-Fein­gold, parties were al­lowed to spend un­lim­ited amounts of soft money on party-build­ing activ­it­ies such as re­gis­ter­ing voters and main­tain­ing their fa­cil­it­ies. Most of the $32 mil­lion it took to build the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee’s headquar­ters build­ing, just a few blocks from the Cap­it­ol, came from the DNC’s soft-money cof­fers. Haim Saban and Steve Bing, two big-money Demo­crat­ic donors, wrote one check each total­ing a com­bined $12 mil­lion just months be­fore the ban on soft money went in­to ef­fect after the 2002 elec­tions.

Since the ban, though, the six ma­jor-party com­mit­tees — the DNC, the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee, the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee, the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, and the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee — have dra­mat­ic­ally in­creased the amounts they spend on fed­er­al races.

In 2002, the last cycle be­fore the ban took ef­fect, the three Demo­crat­ic com­mit­tees spent just $6.4 mil­lion on in­de­pend­ent ad­vert­ising and ad­vert­ising co­ordin­ated with the can­did­ates they backed; in 2012, those same Demo­crat­ic groups dropped $127 mil­lion on their can­did­ates. The top three Re­pub­lic­an com­mit­tees went from spend­ing $21.8 mil­lion in 2002 to $107 mil­lion in 2012. Four of the six com­mit­tees raised more in 2012, from a more reg­u­lated pool of money, than they did in 2002, from the broad­er, par­tially un­reg­u­lated pool (only the NR­SC and the NR­CC raised less in 2012 than they did in 2002).

Even when soft money was leg­al, donors funneled hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in con­tri­bu­tions to can­did­ates through polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tees. As far back as 1984, PACs con­trib­uted more than $100 mil­lion to fed­er­al can­did­ates. But since the ban on soft money was put in place in 2002, PAC con­tri­bu­tions have jumped as well. In 2012, PACs gave $425 mil­lion to fed­er­al can­did­ates, double the amount they gave in 1998, ac­cord­ing to the fig­ures.

The real ex­plo­sion in polit­ic­al spend­ing, though, comes from out­side groups not tech­nic­ally af­fil­i­ated with either party. Those in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures have boomed in the wake of Su­preme Court and U.S. Dis­trict Court rul­ings over the past sev­er­al years that have per­mit­ted un­lim­ited, and at times un­dis­closed, money to flow in­to the polit­ic­al pro­cess.

At the time it was be­ing de­bated, op­pon­ents of Mc­Cain-Fein­gold warned that elim­in­at­ing soft money would han­di­cap the two polit­ic­al parties. The new data show they had a point: As late as 1998, out­side groups spent just $9.9 mil­lion on in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures ad­voc­at­ing for or against a can­did­ate. In 2012, out­side groups spent $198 mil­lion on House races alone, and a stag­ger­ing $259 mil­lion on Sen­ate races. That means out­side groups spent $22 mil­lion more on Sen­ate races than both polit­ic­al parties spent on all fed­er­al races com­bined.

All told, can­did­ates spent more than $1.5 bil­lion run­ning for the House and Sen­ate last year, or­gans of the Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an parties raised an­oth­er $1.3 bil­lion, and non-party in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures totaled just over $457 mil­lion, for a total of $3.25 bil­lion. If the tre­mend­ous growth rate in polit­ic­al spend­ing con­tin­ues, the per­petu­al battle to elect a new House and Sen­ate could be­gin to pos­it­ively im­pact the eco­nomy.

Keep your check­books handy, 2016 is right around the corner.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.