Gavels for top House committees don’t always come cheap
Leaders of top panels transferred big money to party campaign arms
Winning control of the most sought-after committees in the House can come with a hefty price tag — in party dues.
The eight lawmakers atop the four panels dubbed “A” committees transferred more than $5.2 million from their own political accounts to their respective parties’ campaign arms in the 2022 cycle, according to a new report shared first with CQ Roll Call by Issue One, which advocates for overhauling campaign finance laws.
Although gavel races and committee assignments don’t merely come down to who raised the most political cash for the party, it can help members move up the hierarchies of the House if they spread campaign money generously, including to the party committees. Other factors in battles to chair top committees include seniority, especially for Democrats; policy expertise; and influence with leadership and the party rank and file.
Republican Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri, the new chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means panel, topped the list of top 2022 party donors among “A” committee chairs and ranking members. He moved more than $1.1 million from his campaign account and leadership PAC to the National Republican Congressional Committee, Issue One found in its analysis of Federal Election Commission reports through Dec. 31.
Other lawmakers at the helm of the Energy and Commerce, Appropriations and Financial Services committees disclosed hefty sums to the NRCC. Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington also transferred more than $1.1 million to the NRCC — just $3,500 less than Smith. The top Democrat on that panel, New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., transferred about $700,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, while Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, sent $600,000 to the DCCC.
“Party dues sounds kind of innocuous,” said Issue One’s Michael Beckel, an author of the report. “But being asked to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not seven figures, puts a lot of pressure on lawmakers. Time is a zero-sum game. Any time spent fundraising is time not spent doing other business, like oversight and drafting legislation.”
A number of current and former lawmakers acknowledge the pressure to raise campaign cash, and some have publicly decried the system, including in books and high-profile interviews.
In his 2017 book, Colorado GOP Rep. Ken Buck wrote that House committee chairs for the most sought-after gavels were expected to raise $1.2 million over an election cycle. Former Tennessee Republican Rep. Zach Wamp, who chairs Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus and served on the House Appropriations Committee while in Congress, has been critical of the fundraising expectations.
“The current ‘party dues’ system is a recipe for corruption that disconnects members of Congress from their constituents,” he said in the report. “The current ‘dues’ system puts legislators under immense pressure to make appeals to special interests to gain and maintain their committee assignments.”
Former Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, the New York lawmaker who once chaired the DCCC, called dialing for dollars an “unnecessary evil.”
A spokesperson for the NRCC declined comment. A DCCC official said the campaign arm “strongly encourages all members to pay their dues, but it is not a factor in deciding committee posts.”
Some ex-members say that portraying big-money transfers to the party committees as a requirement to ascend the best committees is not in line with reality.
“No. 1, it’s not a requirement for anyone to become a committee chair to fulfill any responsibility to the NRCC,” said former Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, previously the top Republican on the House Administration Committee.
Davis, who long represented a battleground seat until last cycle’s redistricting put him in a solid GOP district (which he lost in a primary to Rep. Mary Miller), said he wouldn’t have made it to Congress initially without the NRCC’s help.
“So I always put a priority on doing what I could to raise money for the NRCC,” he said.
Many committee chairs hail from safe seats and don’t need to use their political cash for their own races, Davis noted. Their transfers of that money to the party committee “helps us win races,” he added.
Massachusetts Rep. Richard E. Neal, the top Democrat on Ways and Means, sent $600,000 to the DCCC. Texas Rep. Kay Granger, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, transferred $570,000 to the NRCC. Financial Services Chairman Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina sent about $410,000 to the NRCC, while the panel’s top Democrat, California Rep. Maxine Waters, transferred $120,000 to the DCCC, Issue One found.
A spokesperson for Neal, who recently chaired the committee, said he “is a proud dues payer, and goes above and beyond in supporting the DCCC.”
And public disclosures may only tell part of the story, Issue One said, noting that “untraceable money” could be used to satisfy a member’s fundraising obligation if the lawmaker asks donors to give directly to the party committee.
With that in mind, Ways and Means Chairman Smith appeared to give the most money to the NRCC among a trio of Republicans who vied for the gavel in this Congress. Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska transferred $815,000 to the NRCC in the 2022 cycle, while Florida Rep. Vern Buchanan sent $305,000 to the NRCC on Nov. 7, according to public filings. Buchanan also disclosed $150,000 to joint fundraising committees whose beneficiaries included the NRCC and others.