‘Supercommittee’ members raised political money while being chosen for panel

October 19, 2011

Despite calls to hold off on their political fundraising, congressional members on the deficit-reduction panel, or “supercommittee,” raised a collective $3.4 million during the third quarter, as they were chosen for the committee.

New reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that although fundraising is down for most of the 12 members, all of them accepted some campaign money between July and September.

The supercommittee has extraordinary power over the federal budget and the industries that rely on federal contracts, subsidies and tax breaks. The panel arose out of a compromise this summer between Republicans and President Obama to raise the country’s debt ceiling. The committee is charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in savings, which will go to an up-or-down vote in Congress by December.

The authority invested in the panel has brought calls for a higher ethical standard for its members: Watchdog groups want political fundraising to stop while the committee meets. Other lawmakers have crafted legislation that would require panel members to publicly disclose all contacts with lobbyists and any campaign contributions as they occur.

Those calls have mostly come to naught. Only Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said that he would stop raising money midway through the quarter; several other lawmakers said they wouldn’t schedule new fundraising events. None of the six senators on the panel are up for reelection next year, and one, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), is retiring, making it easier for them to give up the chance to raise campaign money.

More than half of the $3.4 million that panel members raised last quarter came from corporate political action committees, which are sponsored by corporations to funnel employee donations to friendly officeholders.

Since the beginning of August, when the panel was formed, at least seven members accepted donations from lobbyists.

Of them, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) took in the most contributions — $707,000 for his campaign and $180,000 for his leadership PAC.

“Since being named to the [committee], Congressman Camp has not and will not schedule new fundraising events,” said spokeswoman Megan Piwowar. Camp chairs the powerful House tax-writing committee, a position that draws the attention of political donors looking to influence provisions in the tax code. “Any fundraisers that occurred were set long before,” she said.

In one four-day stretch at the end of September, Camp raised at least $20,000 from lobbyists, including employees of Nixon Peabody, Dutko Worldwide and Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock.

“He must have had a ton of fundraisers scheduled already,” said David Donnelly, of the Public Campaign, a watchdog group that has pushed lawmakers to abandon fundraising. “It’s kind of an empty statement.”

Donnelly said that fundraising was a distraction from the important work of the committee and that it would draw lawmakers into rooms with well-heeled donors instead of average Americans.

“People will not trust this proposal is in their best interest if it isn’t insulated from the narrow interests of lobbyists,” he said.

Democrat Chris Van Hollen (Md.) raised $320,000 between his campaign and leadership PAC during the third quarter, including $19,000 from lobbyists since he was named to the committee. That is up from the $211,000 he raised in the first six months of the year.

“Congressman Van Hollen’s fundraising totals from this quarter match historical third-quarter numbers, driven overwhelmingly by individual donations from Marylanders,” said Bridgett Frey, his spokeswoman. “As he has stated, he is only proceeding with events that were scheduled prior to his appointment” to the committee.”

Most members of the supercommittee reported a drop in fundraising in the third quarter from the previous period, probably the result of concerns about the appearance or legality of fundraising while on the panel.

The independent House Office of Congressional Ethics investigated eight lawmakers last year for accepting contributions from the financial industry just before voting. Members of the House ethics committee cleared their fellow lawmakers and said there was no appearance of impropriety.

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