A Republic, If We Can Keep It

By / 6.24.2011

While ordinary Americans celebrate the start of summer warm weather and bemoan the lack of progress on a deficit reduction deal in Congress, members of Congress themselves have been gearing up for the July 4th recess by engaging in a different sort of Washington pastime–by raising money.

The week before the July 4th recess has seen a flurry of congressional fundraising ahead of the upcoming June 30th quarterly deadline.

The National Republican Congressional Committee reports that GOP House members are scheduled to hold one hundred fundraisers before then with over 50 alone scheduled for this week. House Democrats are not far behind.

Republican fundraisers are bullish about the potential of their party to bring in the money principally because their party is now in the majority in the House. Roll Call cites one GOP fundraiser as saying that he expects incumbents to increase their fundraising by 40% this cycle.

Being out of power in the House has hindered Democratic fundraising. Democratic fundraiser Michael Fraioli told Roll Call, “Things have gotten harder, there is no question about it”. But Fraioli also maintained that fundraising possibilities are rising as expectations of the 2012 electoral prospects of House Democrat improve.

Data on campaign contributions from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics backs up the anecdotal evidence of the advantage that power gives in terms of fundraising.

The graph below shows total contributions to federal elections campaigns for each electoral cycle since 2000.

In each cycle the party that controlled the House raised the most in campaign contributions. The effect was reinforced when that party held other branches of government – for the Republicans during in the 2002, 2004 and 2006 cycles and for the Democrats in 2010.

What’s interesting about this fact is that the extended periods where a party has dominated fundraising coincide with times when the base of the opposition party seems to be most fired up. For example, the Republicans effortlessly out raised Democrats in election cycles when liberals were furious at George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. And in the 2010 cycle – with an ascendant Tea Party scornful of Barack Obama, healthcare reform, and economic stimulus dominating the headlines – Democrats raised $3 for every $2 raised by Republicans.

A logical explanation for this phenomenon can be found when we consider the source of money that actually funds campaigns. In 2008, less than half of one percent of Americans gave donations larger than $200 to federal candidates, yet these larger donations counted for over 80% of the total amount given. Over half of the money contributed came from individuals and PACs operating in just five industries: finance, lawyers and lobbyists, healthcare, communications, and energy and transport.

As the data and anecdotal evidence from fundraisers demonstrates, this giving particularly favors the party in power because it is they who make decisions which directly affect the interests of the groups that dominate giving to political campaigns. What’s more, analysis of the patterns of giving by individual industries and firms finds that most heavy hitters willingly give to both parties with little apparent regard for ideological bent – so long as the candidate and party is in power.

As members of Congress scramble around Washington this week to raise money, before returning to the voters that elected them; let’s mark the birth of American democracy on July 4th, by taking a good hard look at just who it is they’re representing.