Committee chairs in Congress have leg up on raising moneyby Brett Neely, Minnesota Public Radio
WASHINGTON — For many people, except perhaps those who watch a lot of C-SPAN, the work of congressional committees is likely pretty mysterious.
Congressional committees write and debate legislation before sending it to the House and or Senate for a vote. But in the last decade, the committees and their chairmen also have become central cogs in the giant money machine of American politics.
"Being a chairman is huge because you get to set the agenda for the entire committee," said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for more transparency in government. "And there are, on any committee, lots of interests that want the committee to pass certain bills or not pass certain bills."
Those interests are willing to spend heavily to appear before committee chairmen. Among them is U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican from Minnesota's 2nd District whose fundraising has soared since he took the gavel of the Education and Workforce Committee in January of last year.
Between Kline's main re-election committee and a political action committee, he has raised more than $1.9 million. That's up $900,000 from this point in 2010.
Kline and members of his campaign staff declined to comment. But much of the money comes from individuals and groups with business before his committee, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
For example, the for-profit college sector has donated at least $381,000 to Kline's two fundraising committees since January 2011.
That money came as the Obama administration sought new, stricter rules on how those colleges could conduct their business — a policy Kline has strongly opposed.
Such a jump in donations is pretty common after a member of Congress becomes a committee chairman, Drutman said.
"It's a very large boost in fundraising potential."
Kline is among three Minnesotans who have chaired important committees in recent years. U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota's 7th District who chaired the House Agriculture committee between 2006 and 2010, raised nearly $2.2 million during that period.
Nearly all of it came from the agriculture sector, the very industry most affected by his committee's work.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties ask committee chairmen to raise money for their party and candidates. Peterson, who returned more than half of his fundraising haul to the Democrats and fellow members, is not a fan of the system.
"This is not good," he said. "It's not a good system for the institution, for the country."
Peterson worries that donors have too much leverage over members of Congress. But not everyone agrees.
Former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, who served as chairman of the House Transportation Committee from 2006 until his defeat in 2010, said donors did not receive special access to him or his committee staff.
When Congress was in session, Oberstar estimates he went to two or three fundraising events a week, often attended by people with business before the committee.
While he was a committee chairman, Oberstar raised nearly $3.6 million. Airlines, contractors, transportation unions and others with business before his committee were among the top donors to his re-election campaigns.
Oberstar said he didn't say anything to donors that he wouldn't tell the press.
"You will see on invitations to fundraisers, 'come and have an exclusive and behind the scenes look at legislation from so and so,'" said Oberstar, who represented Minnesota's 8th District for 36 years. "That's just overblown. It's just a way to make people feel better about contributing."
Drutman, of the Sunlight Foundation, doubts that every committee chairman abides by that standard.
"People want to give to you so when they go see your staff... they will have access and they will have face time with you at fundraisers," said Drutman. "And you will look more favorably on people who have given to your campaign than those who haven't. It doesn't mean that you'll always listen to them, but money is a foot in the door."
Peterson and Oberstar agree that the relentless focus on fundraising has done great harm to Congress. Both would like to see public financing of elections.
But with Congress deadlocked on many issues, there's nothing about the system that's likely to change any time soon.
- All Things Considered, 05/09/2012, 4:49 p.m.