When Rep. Buck McKeon (Calif.) beat out two Republican competitors to become ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee in 2009, he assumed weighty responsibility as the top Republican on the committee during two ongoing wars.
But the new perch was good for his campaign coffers, too.
In the 2010 election cycle, McKeon's campaign donations from the defense industry increased 402 percent, from $94,000 in the 2008 cycle to $472,000.
Overall during that period his campaign donations remained relatively stagnant, increasing 3 percent, or by $66,000.
The suddenness of the spike was largely because McKeon transitioned from the top GOP slot on another committee, Education and Workforce.
Data compiled by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington show that, across parties and committees, chairmen and ranking members rely heavily on campaign money from industries under the purview of their committees.
For instance, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the current ranking member of the Financial Services Committee who was chairman of the panel from 2007 to 2011, received $1.13 million from the financial services industry during the 2010 cycle, a 2,610 percent increase from the $42,000 he took from the industry sector in 1998. The donations made up 28 percent of his overall 2010 haul of $4.05 million.
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), previously ranking member and now chairman of the Agriculture Committee, took $444,000 from the agriculture industry in the 2010 cycle, a 531 percent increase since 1998, accounting for 41 percent of his overall 2010 haul.
During the same time period, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), then-chairman of the Agriculture panel, received $650,412 in campaign donations from the agriculture industry, a 711 percent increase from the $80,000 he took from the industry in 1998 and making up 47 percent of his overall 2010 haul.
CREW compiled campaign contribution data tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics, analyzing the donations to chairmen and ranking members of six key House committees. For four other committees, CREW identified committee-related industries. During the 2010 cycle, those 20 chairmen and ranking members received $8.9 million in campaign contributions from the industry sectors under their committees' purviews, which was 27 percent of their overall contributions, according to CREW.
"Everyone talks about how they love $10 Internet donations, but that's not really how they raise money," said Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director.
The watchdog group also analyzed the voting records of those chairmen and ranking members using data from MapLight.org, which tracks roll-call votes and public records about which stances industry groups took on those votes.
In many cases, the data show chairmen and ranking members voting in line with the preferences of industry sectors under the jurisdiction of their committees more often than with colleagues in their party.
Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) received $1.39 million from the financial services industry during the 2010 election cycle, 620 percent more than he received from the industry in 1998.
According to the MapLight.org data compiled by CREW, since the 112th Congress began and Bachus took the chairmanship of the Financial Services panel, he has voted 87 percent of the time in line with the interests of the industry his committee oversees, 10 percent more often than the average Republican.
On subsectors within the financial services industry such as "Securities and Investment," "Finance/Credit Companies" and "Commercial Banks," Bachus' votes were even further out of line with his party. For instance, Republicans on average voted 46 percent of the time in line with Finance/Credit Card companies. Bachus voted 64 percent of the time in line with that sector.
"Members universally tell us there is no connection between votes and campaign contributions," Sloan said. "The data really belies that."
In interviews, chairmen and ranking members vowed that their contributions had no connections to their decisions as lawmakers. But several described encountering questionable situations.
"All that data is available. I think it's very legitimate to ask the question," said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), who is now the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, received $152,000 from industries under the committee's purview, a 562 percent increase from the $23,000 those industries donated to him in the 1998 cycle.
"I have always prided myself on doing what I think is the right policy. And none of that changes" when people donate campaign funds, Hastings said.
"I'm gonna vote the same way if I got zero dollars. I agree with them. We're on the same side of these things, and that's why they give me money," Peterson said.
"I don't think my votes have changed since I became chairman," Bachus said, noting occasions he's voted against industry interests. "My votes are based on what I think is right for my constituents." But Bachus said he remembers "one occasion" he saw something "totally out of sorts" on the House floor.
"The only time I've ever thought that the money had probably a corrupting influence was during the Internet gambling bill when Jack Abramoff was representing Internet gambling," he said.
According to the plea agreement Abramoff reached with the Justice Department in 2006, Abramoff received assistance from Tony Rudy, deputy chief of staff to then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), in blocking the Internet gambling bill. In return, Abramoff allegedly steered $50,000 in 2000 and 2001 through a nonprofit group he was affiliated with to Rudy's wife.
McKeon pointed to his length of service, arguing that his well-known views are the reason industry groups support him with campaign donations. "Those people have known me a long time," he said.
McKeon recalled only one occasion, "years ago," in which a would-be donor suggested he would provide campaign funds in return for assistance on a judicial appointment. McKeon called the man's son, a friend, and said he "never wanted to speak to him again," McKeon said.