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Money Dominates Committee and Leadership Races | Rules of the Game

Boehner and Pelosi are fundraising titans in the House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As House members finalize their senior leadership and committee posts, money is playing a decisive role in who occupies — and retains — the chamber’s seats of power.  

Once determined by seniority alone, chairmanships and leadership spots are now just as much a function of which member can raise the most money for colleagues and party committees. Chairmen and leaders also scoop up the most contributions, often from lobbyists with business before them, cementing their seniority. The upshot is a system that’s remarkably resistant to change.  

“Money begets power, and power begets more money, and that then begets more power,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor for the Sunlight Foundation, which recently released a tally of which House members most generously supported their respective party committees.  

Not surprisingly, senior players such as Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California tend to top the list. Boehner doled out $8.3 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee from his campaign committee alone. Pelosi gave $1 million to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee through her campaign arm.  

Both also hosted fundraisers all over for the country for their colleagues, hit up donors through email blasts and doled out millions through their leadership PACs and so-called joint fundraising committees. It’s a drill now familiar to any lawmaker hoping to climb the leadership ladder. For Boehner, this translated to $102 million donated to and raised on behalf of GOP candidates and committees. Pelosi’s haul for Democrats reportedly totaled $101.3 million, including $65.2 million for the DCCC.  

All this helps explain why recent leadership and committee elections are yielding virtually no turnover. Conservatives publicly pledged to oust Boehner more than once this year, but all that talk faded after Election Day. Pelosi, despite having presided over crushing losses for her party in the House, faced no challenge to her post.  

It also sheds light on why soon-to-be Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada faces no insurgency, despite some grumbling. Reid donated $100,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee through his campaign committee, and gave $289,550 to 32 candidates through his leadership PAC, according to Political MoneyLine. He also reportedly held 116 events in 14 cities to help raise money for the leading Democratic super PAC, Senate Majority Fund.  

And what of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the fiery progressive elevated by Reid to a newly created Senate leadership post, to the bafflement of some of her Democratic colleagues? Warren’s swift rise coincides with her emergence as a fundraising powerhouse. The Massachusetts Democrat barnstormed nationwide this cycle, including in “red” states that President Barack Obama did not visit, and raised $2.3 million on behalf of 28 Democratic candidates, according to Real Clear Politics.  

“There’s no question that the role of money has been elevated,” said Christopher J. Deering, a professor of political science at George Washington University. The trend began a few decades ago, but sped up after House Republicans imposed term limits on committee chairmen in 1994, he said.  

The emphasis on money over seniority has intensified polarization on Capitol Hill, said Eleanor Neff Powell, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  

“It substantially benefits members from safe districts — essentially members who don’t have to spend any money on their re-election campaigns,” said Powell, who is writing a book on the topic. “Members who face close races are disadvantaged, both formally and informally, in the leadership race process.”  

That rankles some House members. The issue came to the fore in the contest  between New Jersey’s Frank Pallone Jr. and California’s Anna G. Eshoo to be ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee, a post held by retiring Democrat Henry A. Waxman. Pallone is the more senior of the two. Both he and Eshoo have donated several hundred thousand dollars to dozens of Democratic House members and candidates through their campaign committees and leadership PACs.  

Last week, members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to colleagues that “those who through years of service have gained significant expertise and knowledge should be given priority to lead our committees and subcommittees.” Several CBC members are in line to serve as ranking members in the 114th Congress, the letter noted. As a group, CBC members tend to represent districts less populated by wealthy donors.  

Even prolific fundraisers face a high bar to advancement. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, doled out $4.6 million, directly and indirectly, to GOP candidates and party committees, determined to shine as a rainmaker in his bid to be chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.  

But Brady’s haul was no match for the $12.3 million that Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, handed out and raised for Republicans. Ryan is on track to be chairman of Ways and Means — though under a new House rule he may have to give the post up if he runs for president. That is, unless he receives a waiver from that term limit, as he did after six years as Budget chairman. The final call will no doubt rest heavily on how much money Ryan ponies up for his colleagues this time around.  

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