As Funding Government Stalled, Fundraising for Congress Soared

Perpetual brinksmanship, perpetual campaigning the new normal

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte arrives at Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant for a fundraising event, one of dozens held by members of Congress in recent weeks. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte arrives at Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant for a fundraising event, one of dozens held by members of Congress in recent weeks. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 29, 2016 at 5:00am

As members of Congress postured and blamed each other for a budget impasse that threatened to shut down the government, the Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant was a happening place for backroom fundraising.

In separate dining rooms that were just steps from each other, three members of Congress — two House Democrats from safe districts and a Republican senator in a competitive race — entertained contributors who’d paid as much as $2,500 for lunch.

For their investment, attendees at the Charlie Palmer events said they got steak, salmon or a mini-hamburger buffet and the chance to buttonhole the incumbent.

The three luncheons, in the shadow of the Capitol, were among dozens organized by lawmakers this month, as they rushed to build up their campaign accounts before a Sept. 30 deadline for their last quarterly campaign finance reports before the Nov. 8 election.

If candidates can show they’ve raised a lot of money, that can attract the attention of super PACs and big-money investors who often pump millions into campaigns during the last push before Election Day. 

Lawmakers also had until Sept. 30 to pass a budget before the next fiscal year, a once-routine task that has become increasingly more difficult.

Both deadlines have come to symbolize the dysfunction of modern Congress: Perpetually embroiled in partisan brinkmanship; perpetually campaigning.

“The main agenda is avoiding catastrophe while stockpiling money to win re-election,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Neither phenomenon is entirely new — but something is.

“It’s the juxtaposition of the two — the new money realities in the post-Citizens United world and the tribal politics that have heightened this to a level of really deep embarrassment,” Ornstein said, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that deregulated political spending.

Representatives from the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which help candidates raise money, did not respond to emailed questions about the fundraisers.

On a streak 

This is the 20th straight year that Congress has failed to pass all routine spending bills in time by the end of the fiscal year. That has forced what has become an annual drama as both the House and Senate wrangle over a temporary measure, called a continuing resolution, that keeps money flowing to federal agencies. 

At the same time that lawmakers’ willingness to compromise on even the most basic of their legislative duties has diminished, the pressure to raise ever-larger sums of money for their campaigns has grown.

The cost of running for Congress has increased more than 500 percent since 1984, according to one recent analysis. Some reports have estimated that members of both the House and Senate spend more than half their working hours raising money.

This time around, early promises that the negotiations to fund the government until early December would be painless quickly devolved. Discussions stalled on how disaster relief for Flint, Michigan and flood aid for Louisiana would be handled.

The Senate, on Wednesday, passed an agreement that would avert a government shutdown if the House agreed to a similar measure, which was expected to happen by Thursday.

A seat at the table

But late last week, the feuding was still hot and heavy.

Republicans claimed that Democrats were stalling to make them look bad.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid countered that it was the Republicans’ fault for “refusing to legislate.”

And as the Nevada Democrat spoke last Thursday, separate fundraisers at the sleek Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant steakhouse were just getting underway for Democratic Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia, and GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

Jackson Lee and Connolly both represent safe districts.

Ayotte is in the middle of a bruising race that could determine control of the Senate. Her every move is being scrutinized. A man who identified himself as an opposition tracker — but would not say who employed him — pulled a miniature video camera from his jacket pocket and filmed her as she stepped from a curbside Nissan Altima and dashed across the sidewalk to the restaurant doors.

Some of the attendees spoke to Roll Call after meeting with the three members of Congress.

Alonzo Byrd, an executive at the rental car company Enterprise from St. Louis, flew to Washington the night before Jackson Lee’s fundraiser. It was the third fundraiser for a member of Congress he’d attended on the trip.

“We want to make sure we’re at the table as decisions are being made and discussions are being held about where this industry is going,” he said.

Byrd said he got 10 minutes of uninterrupted time with Jackson Lee to talk about “the realm on transportation.”

A registered lobbyist who attended Connolly’s fundraiser had outdone Byrd.

“I’ve been to 11 of these in the past three days,” he said as he left the restaurant. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by his employer to speak to the press.

Mark Harkins, a former chief of staff to a Democratic House member and now a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, said that’s not unusual this time of year.

While they’re handing over thousands in contributions on behalf of the companies they represent, “no lobbyist has to buy their own breakfast, lunch or dinner this week,” he said. 

By far, Ayotte, Connolly and Jackson Lee weren’t the the only lawmakers attending to fundraising demands in recent weeks. To name just a few:

  • North Carolina Sen. Richard M. Burr, a Republican in one of the most competitive races in the country, had ten breakfasts, luncheons, receptions and dinners in as many days between Sept. 19 and Sept. 28.
  • Democratic House Whip Steny H. Hoyer held a lunch with patrons at Mastro’s Steakhouse on 13th Street on Sept. 21.
  • And Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton, also a Republican, held a lunch and skeet shoot in Prince George’s County on Sept. 20. He’s in a district that Democrats had hoped to make competitive this year.

“They have to go everywhere and anywhere to try to align themselves with folks who write these big checks,” said Josh Stewart, deputy communications director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates transparency in government.

Show me the money

Members have faced increasing expectations to raise money for their own campaigns and their parties since the Republican Revolution of the mid-1990s. That was when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spearheaded the GOP’s takeover of both the House and the Senate.  

Republican candidates broke fundraising records. And to maintain his party’s dominance, Gingrich continued to make unprecedented fundraising demands. Democrats followed suit.

Members are also expected to contribute to party funds on top of the money they raise for their own campaigns, and they sometimes maintain separate leadership PACs that enable them to raise money for other candidates.

While he was speaker, Gingrich often spurned compromise with Democrats and forced two government shutdowns. In an attempt to defund President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, Ted Cruz embraced a similar strategy in 2013.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, in 2010, allowed corporations and unions to contribute more freely to political races through super PACs.

The dozens of fundraisers for members of Congress held in D.C.-area venues such as restaurants and corporate event spaces typically don’t raise the kind of money that a super PAC  can provide.

But they can serve as a litmus test on the viability of their campaigns said Harkins, the former congressional staffer and senior fellow at Georgetown University.

“It’s the last chance that the candidates have to show how strong they are,” he said.