How 'Money Chase' Shapes US Politics

Despite hearings into campaign abuses, 30 fund-raisers a day are held in Washington

It's Thursday evening on Capitol Hill: Do you know where your representative is?

Chances are he or she has, at some point in the day, gone to at least one fund-raising event - either to support a colleague or to add to his own campaign coffers.

The events vary - breakfast meet-and-greets, an intimate salmon lunch at a swank hotel, after-work cocktails, a rib roast at the Capitol Hill Club - but the underlying purpose is the same. Senators and House members mingle with contributors, many of them lobbyists, who dutifully hand over checks.

It's all perfectly legal, but it's not something members of Congress like to talk about. Still, even as senators from the Government Affairs Committee grill witnesses on the fund-raising excesses of the last election, the money chase continues unabated. On a typical weekday, there are probably 20 or 30 events in Washington alone. Then there are the events back home and in the circuit of cities where members, mainly senators, can also strike gold.

"Many of the members are in campaign mode all the time," says Wright Andrews, past president of the American League of Lobbyists. "And they're constantly raising money to either pay off their old debt or to fill up their war chest for the next campaign."

Senators, who serve six-year terms, actively raise money for much of the period between elections. House members, who serve two years at a time, can never let up. In 1996, the average cost of a winning Senate campaign was $4.3 million; in the House, $679,000.

The constant campaigning has been a fact of life for about 20 years. And as the amounts raised grow ever higher, so does the number of events. The reason, says Mr. Andrews, is that the events are getting smaller: Lobbyists are demanding it. The gift ban legislation of 1995, which prevents congressmen from taking any gifts, meals, or trips worth as little as $20 from a lobbyist, has eliminated the expense-account lunches and golf-resort vacations that used to serve as venues for members and lobbyists to schmooze.

Now, it's the members who foot the bill for the events - though, of course, the lobbyists indirectly still pay the freight through their contributions. And they want to get the most bang for their buck. That means intimate events with a member and, say, 10 contributors, not 50. No more cattle calls.

A political education

Far, far away from the Capitol Hill political clubs sits another politician who has learned her own lessons about campaign fund-raising.

In Laurel Prussing's first campaign - for a seat on the county board in Champaign, Ill. - she spent $100. That was 1972, and she won.

Twenty years later, someone else spent $10,000 to win a seat on that board. But that's not the worst of it, says Ms. Prussing, a Democrat who went on to become county auditor and then a state representative. A seat in the Illinois House can now cost several hundred thousand dollars, and a seat in the United States Congress, double that.

But Prussing, who is not independently wealthy, is ready to try again to unseat incumbent Rep. Thomas Ewing (R). Last year, on her first try, she pulled together $378,000, about $100,000 from the sale of her late mother's home, $73,000 from political-action committees (PACs), and the rest from individuals.

Her opponent, Mr. Ewing, raised $645,000 - more than half of it from PACs, including those representing tobacco, sugar, and peanut interests. Ewing chairs the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Risk Management and Specialty Crops.

This year, Prussing is starting to raise money earlier than she did in the last race. She's already held a major fund-raiser - a hog roast attended by Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois and three Democratic contenders for the Illinois governor's race. When receipts are all in, she expects to gross $20,000 - typical for a fund-raising event on Capitol Hill.

Little rooms with phones

Prussing says the key to fund-raising isn't necessarily to spend more time doing it, but to do it smarter. That means coming up with events that will attract press coverage.

"I am horrified by candidates staying in a little room all day making fund-raising calls," says Prussing. "I literally could not survive that way."

Back in Washington, little rooms for phone calls are a fact of life for House and Senate members. At the headquarters of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the group that helps Democrats win House elections, members are free to drop by - about a five minute walk from the Capitol - to make calls. Republicans have a similar setup.

The bottom line is that members spend more of their day than they'd care to admit raising money so they can remain members. The reason is to have enough money for TV ads, by far the biggest factor behind the escalating cost of campaigns. The effect, say lobbyists, is that the quality of legislation has declined dramatically in the last 20 years.

But even as senators decry the money chase - just about every opening statement in last week's fund-raising hearings bemoaned the system - they still chase green daily. One fund-raiser for a Senate Republican notes that with the limits on donations that individuals may make - $1,000 each for the primary and general elections - members have no choice.

"In order to amass the funds necessary, it takes fund-raising that lasts several years," he says. "I don't think this year is any different from any other year."

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