Money, politics still mix for most on Congress' debt panel

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 15, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Hours after convening the first working meeting of Congress' "supercommittee" Tuesday, committee co-chair Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state had another engagement: She hosted a $1,000-per-ticket fundraiser at the fall reception of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, raising money for her party's 2012 Senate candidates.

Two other Republican members of the debt-reduction panel held fundraisers the same night, giving lobbyists and influence peddlers an opportunity to mingle with them: Sen. Rob Portman hosted a reception for fellow Ohioan Republican Rep. Steve Chabot, and Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona hosted one for Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, his Mississippi counterpart.

Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina had the busiest week of any supercommittee member, with five fundraisers scheduled over four days.

Despite growing calls for the 12 committee members to stop raising money until they conclude their task of cutting $1.2 trillion from the federal budget, most are adhering to the time-honored tradition of mixing their politics with plenty of cash.

At least nine of them — five Democrats and four Republicans — have held or scheduled 21 fundraisers since getting named to the committee last month, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based organization that tracks the influence of money in politics.

To be sure, no one's accusing members of any wrongdoing.

Fundraising has long been considered part of the job, and the Supreme Court in recent years has loosened limits on corporate political contributions, defending them as expressions of free speech protected by the Constitution's First Amendment. In Congress, legislative attempts to institute taxpayer financing of congressional elections have failed to gain traction, and opinion polls find that most Americans oppose the idea anyway.

But critics say that by raising money while they're doing such high-profile work, supercommittee members are doing nothing to instill confidence in Congress, which already is facing record low public approval.

The spotlight has been particularly intense on the supercommittee, which by design has much more clout than most congressional panels do. It could set spending levels for hundreds of federal projects extended over 10 years.

"This committee is somewhat unprecedented in what it's doing," said Bill Allison, an analyst with the Sunlight Foundation. As a result, he said, members of the committee are "a magnet for lobbyists who want to protect their bottom lines."

"They're making decisions that are going to affect everyone; they are going to face incredible pressures," said Michael Beckel of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks the influence of money on government.

Nick Nyhart, the president and chief executive officer of Public Campaign, a national nonprofit group that focuses on special-interest money in politics, said the committee members could send a "clear signal" that their recommendations would be made without the undue influence of big-money interests by suspending all fundraising for the next two months. The supercommittee, known officially as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, has until Nov. 23 to make its recommendations.

Nyhart said that the 94 senators and 429 members of the House of Representatives who weren't on the committee could pick up any fundraising slack.

"For most Americans, it is very distressing," he said "I worry that Americans have given up on the ability of government to make decisions in the interests of the public, and not in the interests of the big-lobby crowd and the big-money crowd."

Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, another supercommittee member, won praise from government watchdogs this week when he said he'd suspend fundraising and limit contacts with lobbyists while he served on the panel. He told The Boston Globe that he didn't want "the appearance of money being associated with anything I do on this."

Later, however, Kerry's office sought to downplay his remarks, saying that he'd freeze only fundraising for his re-election. On Monday, he's scheduled to headline a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee breakfast, with the proceeds going to other Senate candidates next year.

Of the 21 fundraisers disclosed by the Sunlight Foundation, nine involve Clyburn. Kyl has three, while Murray and Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra of California each have two. Republican Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan and Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania each have one fundraiser scheduled, as do Kerry, Portman and Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

The only members of the committee who don't have any fundraisers scheduled are Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana and Republican Reps. Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Fred Upton of Michigan.

Nyhart said Murray faced the biggest conflict of interest as she headed up her party's fundraising efforts for Senate candidates next year. He worries that she'll face too much pressure to use the committee to help those candidates.

Others fear that Murray's close ties to firms such as Boeing and Microsoft, which rank as two of her top five career donors, could influence her.

Boeing, which received 43 percent of its revenues from the federal government last year, joined the Aerospace Industries Association at a news conference Wednesday to urge the supercommittee not to cut aerospace or defense spending. A day earlier, the group gave Murray its Wings of Liberty Award, citing her long advocacy for aerospace programs.

Murray has said little, but she's made it clear that she has no plans to stop fundraising. Last week, she told Roll Call, a Washington, D.C., newspaper: "I'm a multi-tasker. I'm doing great."

Matt McAlvanah, Murray's communications director, said the senator "has built a reputation of integrity by making decisions based solely on the needs of her constituents in Washington state, not on fundraising or lobbying or special interests in Washington, D.C."

"Those ideals are not going to be suddenly compromised, and she is not going to change her focus from putting people back to work and helping struggling families," he said.

Clyburn's fundraisers this week comprised four breakfasts and one dinner, with ticket prices of as much as $5,000 apiece. Campaign-finance experts said he could pull in a total of $1 million for his re-election committee, his Bridge leadership PAC and for Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.

Clyburn said he hadn't seen an increase in attention from donors or lobbyists, but he added that "there has been a dramatic increase in the total strangers stopping me on the street and in the airport asking me to please get it done."

He said his constituents would be "foremost on my mind" as the committee did its work.

"Most of the people who have my ear are those who feel they don't have a voice and will never have the money to attend a fundraiser," Clyburn said.

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Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction

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