When Tom Downey arrived in Congress in 1974, he had spent $64,000 to get elected, “and like a good Democrat I raised $43,000.” The gap between the two seemed hopelessly large to then-Representative Downey, from New York, and he held two Washington fundraisers over the next year to close out his campaign debt.
Then-Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois chided him for what was, for the time, an aggressive Washington fundraising schedule.
“‘Two fundraisers? How many are you going to do here?’” Rostenkowski asked, as Mr. Downey tells it. “He said, ‘You need to go home and raise the money where you should be raising it.’ ”
Today, members can handle two fundraisers a day without blinking. A straightforward equation describes how money went from being a huge part of the political process to a massive part, argues historian Zelizer: Rising costs plus campaign-finance reforms limiting donations from single sources equal an explosion of the time members of Congress need to raise money.
Even when members succeed in stocking their campaign war chests, the growth of "super political-action committees" (super PACs), which can spend unlimited sums, means candidates live in fear of a PAC swooping in near Election Day with millions of dollars in advertising “that you have no control over,” Downey says. “This is no way to run elections.”
The need for greater and greater campaign funds, moreover, may be spilling over into the legislative process.
“Choosing committee and subcommittee chairs in the House is sometimes based more on members’ fundraising abilities than on their expertise or seniority,” Don Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, testified before a Senate Oversight committee hearing in March. “And then, once they become chairs, they are assessed specified amounts by their campaign committees to contribute to party coffers.”
Want to climb the leadership ladder on the Hill? Better be ready to raise the big bucks, too – another change in emphasis over past Congresses, Downey says.
“To talk about cultural change would be to so understate the way that money has influenced politics,” Downey says. “In the '70s and the '80s, we selected our leaders because we thought they would be good ones. We didn’t select them to be our leaders in Congress because they were the best fundraisers.”