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How Congress Auctions off Power

Doors to party leadership are opening for Congress’ top fundraisers.

  • Avram Billig
November 21, 2014

Crossposted at The Huffington Post.

What allowed Sen. Elizabeth Warren to jump rank and join the Senate leadership last week? Progressives may chalk it up to her policy proposals or charisma, but Roll Call reporter Eliza Newlin Carney suggests that Warren also benefited from her ability to raise at least $2.3 million for Democratic candidates in 2014. If so, Warren’s elevation is the latest instance of fundraising prowess helping to open the gates to party leadership, a trend that cements money’s role in politics and could worsen polarization. 

Fundraising is essential both to landing in Congress, and to rising within its ranks. Carney writes that Harry Reid, John Boehner, and Nancy Pelosi have all survived recent or prospective challenges in part through their continually effective fundraising. And in 2008, political scientist Damon Cann wrote that prospective leaders are “unlikely to be successful without demonstrating their fund-raising capacity.” “Aggressive fundrais[ing]” has become an “unspoken prerequisite” for leadership positions.

While fundraising has long been part of the leadership equation, it wasn’t always so paramount. Since 1994, elections have become ever more expensive and ever more focused on key races, leading those in safe districts to channel their money to members at risk. Member-to-member giving increased tenfold between 1993 and 2003, becoming crucial to both parties’ campaign strategies. Top fundraisers have now become invaluable as top givers, and, as Cann writes, seniority has “taken a backseat to fund-raising abilities” as the key to a leadership position.

The process starts early in a representative’s career. Congressional Democrats maintain a list of dues required to attain certain committee posts. To be considered for ranking member of an “exclusive committee,” such as Financial Services, Democrats must contribute $500,000 in dues to the party. A nonexclusive committee, such as Judiciary, costs $250,000. Political scientist Eleanor Neff Powell has written that this type of structure benefits members from safe districts, and Carney suggests that it benefits those from wealthy districts.

But some political scientists have written that elevating top fundraisers also worsens polarization.

Studies have shown that fundraising prowess and extremism go hand in hand. Fringe candidates generally raise more money than do moderates. A 2009 study found that the more conservative the Republican, the more money was raised; the more liberal the Democrat, the more money was raised.

In 2006, political scientists Eric Heberlig, Marc Hetherington, and Bruce Larson hypothesized that rewarding fundraisers provides a backdoor for extreme legislators to gain power. Members vote for their leaders in Congress, and they traditionally favored those in the party’s ideological middle ground (political scientists called this the ‘middleman’ hypothesis). That may have changed with the emphasis on fundraising. Whereas in the old system, extreme views would alienate moderate members, in the new system, “members may be willing to accept the risk of extreme leaders, and the potential for nonmedian policy outcomes, in exchange for the collective benefit of electoral resources.” The authors point out that whereas 59% of elected leaders between 1981 and 1993 were “moderates,” coming from the middle third of their caucuses ideologically, between 1994 and 2005, 56% came from the most extreme third.  

In that time, the American public has become more polarized, and there is a chance that Congress is also more willing to elevate extreme members perceived to be aligned with the public at large. Yet if the parties’ emphasis on fundraising does contribute to more extreme leadership, the continued importance of money in politics could make Congress’ nasty dysfunction problem even worse.  

(Photo: Flickr/NancyPelosi)