Money Rolls for Approps Democrats

Posted April 20, 2007 at 6:11pm

While Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) spent the first months of the year railing against President Bush’s troop increase for the Iraq War, he was experiencing his own surge closer to home.

The chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Defense saw his campaign contributions skyrocket during the first quarter of the year, thanks in large part to checks from clients of the PMA Group, a lobbying firm.

Murtha collected more than $730,000 during the opening months of the year, a more than seven-fold increase over the same period in the previous cycle, when he raised about $102,000, according to a Roll Call analysis of records from the Federal Election Commission. Clients of the PMA Group, a firm founded by a former top Murtha aide on the subcommittee, helped steer to him $223,000 of that sum, or nearly a third, the analysis found.

Carmen Jacobs, a lawyer for the firm, said, “We don’t tell our clients what to do for people.” A Murtha spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Murtha’s success gathering political money reflects a broader trend for the new cardinals on the House Appropriations panel. As they get their grips on their gavels, the Democratic subcommittee chairmen are also pocketing campaign cash at an aggressive clip.

The committee’s 12 leading Democrats opened the year by more than doubling their take during the same stretch in 2005, increasing their total haul from about $1 million then to more than $2.4 million this year. Contributions to their Republican counterparts, by contrast, stayed relatively flat, inching up about $65,000 from $1.1 million two years ago.

Lobbyists and aides called the numbers the result of both a simple recognition downtown that power has changed hands and a forceful push by Democrats to shore up their majority by raising money. “It’s a tribute to the fact that they’re in charge, and they want to stay in charge,” a Republican appropriations lobbyist said. “The last cycle shows that money makes a difference.”

On both sides of Capitol Hill, Democrats in positions of power have targeted industries with business before their committees to contribute. Some party leaders have suggested they will be watching ratios of corporate political action committees to make sure they adjust giving that has traditionally favored the GOP to reflect the new balance of power.

But the Appropriations committees usually operate in a bipartisan fashion. With plenty of federal money to spread around, Democrats in the minority counted on directing 40 to 50 percent of it, depending on the subcommittee, according to several people familiar with the process. Fundraising by members of the panel reflected that parity: In the first quarter of 2005, Republicans outpaced Democrats, but only by 20 percent.

It is less clear so far this year how that power-sharing arrangement has changed, if at all. Democrats have moved to overhaul the spending process, approving sweeping new rules for the targeted spending provisions known as earmarks and pledging to drastically reduce them. Lawmakers must now publicly disclose the earmarks they request and certify they have no personal financial interest in them.

One House GOP leadership aide said the fundraising totals are evidence that Democrats are not committed to their own reform promises. “Democrats are using these high-level committee posts as ATM machines, which is exactly what they said they would not do,” the aide said.

Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Commons Sense had a different take. He said with new scrutiny on the process, lobbyists seeking earmarks may feel the need to step up their activity just to stay competitive. “It’s almost like getting into Harvard. It’s a more competitive environment, so people are doing more to get noticed.”

Ellis speculated that if Democrats follow through with pledges to rein in earmarks, lobbyists will stop contributing as heavily. “This is an investment — they’re not giving because they think these politicians are the greatest thing since sliced bread,” he said. “It’s business, and if they’re not seeing a return on their money, they’re going to pull it out.”

Among Democrats, Rep. Nita Lowey (N.Y.), chairwoman of the subcommittee on state and foreign operations, was the exception: She collected slightly less this quarter — $149,448 — than she did during the same period in 2005, making her the only cardinal whose fundraising dipped.

Most others saw eye-popping growth in their campaign treasuries. Rep. Peter Visclosky (Ind.), considered a Murtha ally on the subcommittee on Defense and now wielding a gavel of his own on the subcommittee on energy and water development, more than quadrupled his take, from $77,347 to $349,725. That data is incomplete because the lawmaker has not yet filed a fundraising report for his leadership PAC.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), now at the helm of the subcommittee on Agriculture, rural development, and Food and Drug Administration, has bumped her take from $97,420 two years ago to at least $172,875 so far this year (she has yet to file the last two months of reports for her leadership PAC). “As I think everyone is, Congresswoman DeLauro is working hard to retain the majority, and fundraising is a part of that,” spokeswoman Adriana Surfas said.

Not to be outdone, full committee Chairman David Obey (Wis.) has dramatically stepped up his activity, raising $282,030 during the first three months of the year, up from $103,842 in 2005. A committee spokeswoman did not return a call for comment.

“They’re not slacking,” one appropriations lobbyist said. “They’re motivated and they’re going after it.”

While several Republicans were able to bring in more money this year, a few others have found the transition to the minority a rougher plod. Contributions to the re-election campaign of Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), ranking member on DeLauro’s subcommittee, have tumbled from $179,080 in 2005 to $119,475 this year. It was a similar story for Rep. David Hobson (Ohio), ranking member on Visclosky’s subcommittee. He saw the take for his re-election account fall from $229,180 to $95,850.

As he weathers a federal probe into his activities on the panel, Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), the ranking member on the committee, managed to pull in $102,800 for his re-election fund, significantly more than the $15,000 he raised during the opening months of 2005, but only an average performance when compared to his fellow ranking members on the panel.

Jamie Weinstein contributed to this report.