I'm Calling To Ask For Your Contribution : Planet Money On today's show, we reveal which Congressional committees are a fundraising goldmine. And which committees actually make it harder for Congressmen to raise money.
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I'm Calling To Ask For Your Contribution

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEWT GINGRICH: I think it's pretty clear to say that I have never, ever gone and done any lobbying.

MITT ROMNEY: That insider life in Washington, I don't believe, is the kind of change we need in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALEX BLUMBERG, HOST:

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Alex Blumberg.

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: And I'm Andrea Seabrook. I cover Congress for NPR. Hello. Glad to be here.

BLUMBERG: Glad to have you.

SEABROOK: Those people you just heard are two candidates seeking the Republican nomination for president, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Today is Friday, March 30.

BLUMBERG: You've never done this before? It's amazing. You sound like a natural. You are with us (laughter), because you and I have been working for several months now, several months...

SEABROOK: Months.

BLUMBERG: ...Investigating the role of money in politics.

SEABROOK: In fact, we've talked to members of Congress, both current ones and former ones - lobbyists, ex-lobbyists, staffers, fundraising consultants, all kinds of people - about the money. Who gives it, who gets it, how and where it changes hands and what exactly it buys.

BLUMBERG: For the next month or so we're going to be rolling this reporting out on NPR and on this very podcast, and it's all going to kick off this weekend with a big hour on This American Life. And today on the podcast, we're going to give you a quick preview of that hour.

SEABROOK: But first, the PLANET MONEY Indicator.

BLUMBERG: Today's Planet Money Indicator, $259,000. That is how much your fundraising totals can be expected to increase as a congressman when you're on one very powerful committee in Congress, the Ways and Means Committee.

SEABROOK: Here's why. The Ways and Means Committee has jurisdiction over the entire tax code of the United States. And so when you're on that committee, you have an incredible amount of power over how much taxes corporations pay, individuals, everybody. And so therefore, all of those corporations and the moneyed special interests care about your candidacy. They care about what you do on that committee. And therefore, they shove a lot of money in your direction, totaling, you know, an average of $259,000.

BLUMBERG: And this is one of these open secrets in Congress, that the amount of money you are able to raise as a candidate has a lot to do with your position on a congressional committee. And as part of our hour on This American Life, we actually got a Ph.D. at the Sunlight Foundation, which is this nonprofit that tracks money in politics, to crunch data for us and come up with an actual mathematically somewhat precise answer of which committees are the most valuable in terms of fundraising and which are the least.

SEABROOK: Yeah. And we found that besides Ways and Means, the Financial Services Committee is very good to be on for your fundraising.

BLUMBERG: No surprise there. Banks, financial services companies, they want to contribute to you.

SEABROOK: Exactly. Energy and Commerce, which oversees the entire oil and natural gas industry. A lot of money in there, too.

BLUMBERG: But it was also interesting looking at the worst committees from a fundraising perspective. It turns out there are certain committees that actually hurt your fundraising. When you're on these committees, you raise less than the average. Some of those committees? Government reform...

SEABROOK: Ethics, education. And then at the very bottom?

BLUMBERG: Judiciary. Judiciary costs you almost $200,000 in your fundraising. And that is because you have jurisdiction over the court system, judicial nominations. There's just not a lot of moneyed interests that care about what goes on in judiciary, at least, compared to Ways and Means or financial services.

SEABROOK: So an interesting thing about this. This isn't just something that people talk about. The leadership of both parties actually rank their own committees, as either A committees, B committees or C committees, according to how much power the people have on those committees and therefore how much they can raise money. And so if you get on an A committee, you're actually, as a lawmaker, expected to raise more money and give it over to your party and the party leaders to spread around to other members of Congress who might be in tighter races.

BLUMBERG: And, you know, Andrea, you've been covering Congress for years now, right?

SEABROOK: Yes. I started in 2003. And what's interesting here is that this is something that I've known about for a while because I've been covering Congress for a bunch of years, but it's not something that lawmakers talk about every day. First of all, they don't like to talk about it much. But actually, more so because it is such a daily part of their lives and is so separate from the sort of news - the, you know, what's going on on the floor of the House and the Senate that people like me cover every day.

BLUMBERG: Right. It's not news that you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. And so it's not news that they're doing all this fundraising. But even though they're doing fundraising, it could be argued more than their eating breakfast, lunch and dinner.

SEABROOK: Yeah.

BLUMBERG: I mean, that's something that really stood out from the reporting that we did, and that's going to be part of this hour, is just how everyday and constant and relentless this fundraising is. Here is Senator Dick Durbin. He's a Democrat from Illinois.

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RICHARD DURBIN: I think most Americans would be shocked - not surprised, but shocked - if they knew how much time a United States senator spends raising money and how much time we spend talking about raising money and thinking about raising money, and planning to raise money and, you know, going off on little retreats and conjuring up new ideas on how to raise money.

SEABROOK: They spend hours of every day. One congressman told us he spends two to three hours every day raising money. And a lot of those hours are spent in these sort of phone banks, or call centers, that both parties have in private offices just outside of the Capitol.

BLUMBERG: Right. By law, you're not allowed to make these fundraising calls from your official congressional digs so they have to go across the street to these call centers.

SEABROOK: Yeah. And so the lawmakers sit down, and they go through a list of donors that the party has given them or that they've compiled, and they just call people and ask for money for hours and hours on end. And here's a clip from Congressman Peter DeFazio describing what these call centers are like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER DEFAZIO: It's just, like, counters on the wall with telephones and people 8 inches away from you talking on the telephone.

BEN CALHOUN, BYLINE: When you say the call center, people calling to raise money, you mean members?

DEFAZIO: Yeah. No, these are lines of members of Congress. But if you walked in there, you would say, boy, this is about the worst-looking, most abusive call center situation I've seen in my life. These people don't have any workspace. The other person is, you know, virtually touching them.

BLUMBERG: You know, essentially every single congressperson has a second job, which is being a telemarketer. And, by the way, that was This American Life producer, Ben Calhoun, you heard in there asking DeFazio that question. Ben also worked with us on this program, and he does a great story in the This American Life hour on super PACs.

SEABROOK: The super PACs, you know, have come into great prominence after the Citizens United case, which allows, you know, the free flow of corporate and union money into politics. And the super PACs can put unlimited amounts of money into political advertising, and have resulted in this sort of amping up the whole system, just record amounts of cash being dumped into the political process.

BLUMBERG: And we've heard a lot about these super PACs and the effect they're having on the Republican presidential primary. For example, one candidate, Newt Gingrich, has basically been supported by one family, the Adelsons, who've put in millions and millions of dollars into his campaign. But Ben looks at an area that hasn't gotten as much attention, but where the impact could actually be much larger, the impact of these super PACs on congressional races. And so there's a big section in This American Life hour about that.

SEABROOK: And here is something that was really fun for me. We reunited two old friends who used to be synonymous with money in politics. It's like bringing Batman and Robin back together, except it's Batman and Batman in this case. You know these people.

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RUSS FEINGOLD: John. How are you?

JOHN MCCAIN: Well, I miss you. And you're not missing a thing, but I miss you.

FEINGOLD: (Laughter).

SEABROOK: That's right. John McCain and Russ Feingold, the people behind the landmark McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill passed in 2002. That bill, remember, it was supposed to lessen the influence of money in the political process.

BLUMBERG: But a lot of McCain-Feingold was effectively undone by this Citizens United case. And during our conversation with them, we learned that the two of them had actually been there at the Supreme Court while the court was hearing testimony for the Citizens United case. And, McCain in particular, he got pretty salty when he talked about it.

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MCCAIN: The day that Russ and I went over and observed the arguments, the questions that were asked, the naivety of the questions that were asked and the arrogance of some of the questioners was just stunning. Particularly, Scalia with his sarcasm. Why shouldn't these people be able to be able to engage in this process? Why do you want to restrict them from their rights of free speech? I mean, the questions they asked showed they had not the slightest clue as to what a political campaign is all about and the role of money that it plays in political campaigns. And I remember when Russ and I walked out of there, I said, Russ, I said, we're going to lose and it's because they are clueless.

SEABROOK: Yeah. You know, Alex, you know, they're just mad as hornets.

BLUMBERG: It was really...

SEABROOK: They're really upset by the whole thing.

BLUMBERG: It was really striking hearing the 2008 Republican nominee for president sounding like any left-wing cable talk show pundit, you might imagine, talking about...

SEABROOK: Or congressional watchdog.

BLUMBERG: Yeah, exactly, talking about the Citizens United case.

SEABROOK: Yeah.

BLUMBERG: Anyway, so that's just a taste. You can hear all this and more this weekend on This American Life. You can download it on iTunes, or you can go to the website thislife.org.

SEABROOK: And stay tuned to NPR and PLANET MONEY over the coming weeks and months. Alex and I are going to keep digging deeper on this project and bring you as many open secrets as we can find.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRIENDS OF FRIENDS")

HOSPITALITY: (Singing) You've got friends that are new friends, and friends that are old friends, and friends looking out.

BLUMBERG: As always, we'd love to hear what you think. You can send us an email, planetmoney@npr.org. You can also check us out on Twitter, Facebook and Spotify. I'm Alex Blumberg.

SEABROOK: And I'm Andrea Seabrook. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRIENDS OF FRIENDS")

HOSPITALITY: (Singing) Got a cheap dress on, with a wrinkled sleeve. My hat and glove. My money, please. Or we might just go with a burnt black air. I'd rather be home. My president's there. When I call, you don't pick up anymore. But I've got friends that are new friends.

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