Politics

Congressional Connection Poll: Fire ‘Em All!

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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.

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