Congressional ‘dues’ help garner good committee assignments

REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Members are charged “dues” for good committee assignments, and more if they hope to become committee chairs.

How surprised, or bothered, would you be to learn that members of Congress are expected to, in addition to constantly raising funds for their own re-election campaigns, also raise six-figure sums as “dues” to their party campaign committees in order to secure good committee assignments?

First of all, it’s not a what-if. It’s true. Members are charged “dues” for good committee assignments, and more if they hope to become committee chairs.

Last week, a friend passed along this clip about a new book by Freedom Caucus Republican U.S. Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado in which Buck cites the charging of “dues” as an example of how “money rules Washington” and U.S. politics. I haven’t read the whole book. In the clip linked above, Buck, a second-term congressman, …

 recounts in detail the contributions that House Republicans are expected to forward to their campaign arm as dues to serve on congressional committees. Lesser committee spots, such as the Judiciary panel, will set a freshman lawmaker back $220,000, Buck writes, while ‘A’ committees, such as Ways and Means, require dues of $450,000.

Naturally, the members of Congress raise their “dues” from well-heeled interests and you’d have to be pretty naïve not to assume that the lobbyists are happy to buy a little extra “access” to and gratitude from those who will sit on key committees.

By the way, although the example comes from a Republican, the practice is bipartisan and neither surprising nor horrifying to a close observer like Congress expert Kathryn Pearson, who professes on political science for the University of Minnesota. She saw the issue in a larger perspective.

The more Pearson and I discussed what Rep. Buck had disclosed the more it seemed a reasonable extension of other things we already know about the money/politics continuum.

Of course the leaders of both parties in Congress have a legitimate interest in raising money for the committees, like the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, whose job it is to help members of the party win their races so the party can maintain, or acquire, majority status in either house of Congress.

The party leaders, who generally have relatively safe seats of their own, are quite reasonably interested in raising funds for the party committees and incentivizing the members of their caucuses to raise funds for those committees as well. One way to incentivize along those lines is to reward successful fundraisers with good committee assignments and even chairmanships. And those assignments are in the leaders’ control.

So yes, Pearson said, if you look at the numbers there is a clear correlation between members who raise funds for the party campaign committees and members who get assigned to the more influential and desirable committees.

Committee chairs certainly are expected to raise more money than nonchairs, she said. But, of course, those moneyed interests hoping to ingratiate themselves to powerful members of Congress have a strong incentive to be generous with donations requested by a chair. So, among the reasons that chairs give more to the party committees is that it’s easier for them to raise the money.

A top goal of the leader is to help his party get, or keep, majority status (that certainly makes sense), and it’s a goal that he or she presumably shares with all members of the party caucus. Those who raise a lot for the party committees may be rewarded with a good committee assignment, but the those who represent hotly contested districts may also get good assignments, even if they aren’t major fundraisers for the party committees, but because it’s in the party’s overall interest to help that member get re-elected.

It might be a little more outrageous if we saw some senior member who was a good and valuable member of a committee with expertise in the committee’s subject matter but who lost his seat on the committee because he had failed to raise enough for the NRCC or the DCCC. But that is pretty close to unheard of, Pearson said.

So, please decide for yourself how outrageous it is for party leaders to assign “dues” to members seeking good committee assignments. To me, the practice remains troublesome not for its own sake but as one more reflection of how messed up the U.S. money-politics nexus is. (It’s much better in most developed democracies, where they manage to have “free speech” without allowing infinite campaign spending to swamp so many basic concepts of democracy.)

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/18/2017 - 11:55 am.

    …and speaking of swamps…

    …this strikes an old-fashioned Republican-turned–Democrat–turned Independent as simply one more example, among many such examples, of how little true democracy is involved in our “democratic” form of government. Corporations and billionaire donors are not interested in democracy and are politically amoral. They’re interested in enhancing their bottom lines, and as Eric (and many others) suggests, no one donates a couple hundred thousand to a reelection campaign and expects nothing in return. Republicans and Democrats alike are subject to, and even encourage, the same purchasing of influence that taints the whole process. Corporate profits flow just as readily in authoritarian societies and economies as they do in more democratic ones, as Axis country economies demonstrated leading up to World War II. That’s one of the primary reasons why a military-industrial complex is inherently dangerous for a society that purports to be run by its citizens.

    Even strictly small-potatoes donors like me ($25 here, $25 there) contribute to someone’s election campaign because we believe the candidate in question will vote to implement or uphold policies with which we agree. In a society increasingly governed by corporations (See Ron Meador’s piece on the influence of agricultural interests in Iowa, and by extension, in Minnesota, as well), which the SCOTUS has decided are people in some ways, but not in ways that would make them genuinely responsible as real people are held responsible by the law, money increasingly determines policy outcomes, whether those policies are good for the general public or not. Committee assignments and chairmanships are merely one small cog in a much larger money-distribution (one might say “laundering”) system.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/18/2017 - 12:34 pm.

    Sunshine Is A Good DIsinfectent

    This would be a good thing to ask about when elected representatives and senators have constituent meetings. Well, that wouldn’t work for Paulsen, but hey, you can’t have everything.

    How much have you raised for the DCCC/RCCC? From whom did you raise those funds?

    And candidates running to unseat incumbents aren’t off the hook either. they should be asked if they will pay “dues”, and who will they hit up for the dough.

    I doubt Trump will say, uh, tweet, anything about this swamp.

  3. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/18/2017 - 01:35 pm.

    It’s easy to see why John Kline’s loss of his chair

    …would place some new – and debilitating – constraints on his value to the for-profit education industry, his primary client. No wonder he withdrew, with little left to sell in such a system.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/18/2017 - 04:09 pm.

    Somehow this doesn’t seem shocking.

    What’s being asked here is team playing by members of Congress: Do your best to help the team (our party members) gain or keep the majority or as close to it as possible. The practice is similar to a corporate head demanding that all division heads contribute to the bottom line. Your section of our team contributes well, and you get a promotion/raise.

    We have to realize that the expectations here are capitalistic. It’s not as if the House and Senate members are contributing (“buying” or “paying individual dues”) their own funds. They are involved in a group endeavor. It’s a familiar system, where constituents pay for access to those in power, and those in power gain influence or power according to their skill at fundraising.

    What would the alternative be, in our money-influenced capitalistic society? Should we give potential committee chairs a qualifying examination? the kind where you have to actually know something about the field to sit at the head of the committee?

    Let’s remember: On issue after issue where he struck a campaign position and theme, our President Trump has said, again and again now, that once he sat as President and listened to experts for ten minutes–he has a short attention span–he realized how complicated many things are, and he changed his views. On China as currency manipulator. On China as trade partner or adversary. On NATO. O NAFTA. On health care and health care insurance. On what was “swampy” about Washington D.C. And so forth. We Americans elected a person without knowledge of the office he sought, because he was a smart businessman who told his customers what they wanted to hear. He bought his votes, in other words.

    Not a better way than having ,embers of Congress beat the bushes for team money.

    • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 04/18/2017 - 08:22 pm.


      What does this article have to do with Trump? This is about corruption, plain and simple. This is why people are pissed off.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/19/2017 - 06:49 am.


    I have been aware of this for some time. It’s a reason I was always sort of embarrassed by the Star Tribune basing their endorsement of Erik Paulsen, in part on his membership of the Ways and Means Committee. For those who know a little bit more about the process, having a Congressman who is a member of a prestige committee isn’t necessarily a good thing.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/19/2017 - 11:19 am.


    It’s interesting to me that so many people in Congress seem unhappy and looking for a way out. I am sure the constant demands to fund raise are a part of that.

    Something that isn’t talked about much is the positioning for higher office. To my mind, when both Senators and Franken and Klobuchar passed on the opportunity to run for governor, they were signalling that they weren’t interested in the presidency. Washington is no place to run for the White House. If you have higher ambitions, the governorship of Minnesota is not a bad place to start. I believe Trump is certain to be re-elected which means the next serious chance for a Democrat to ge elected is in 2024, when a successful governor might be 6 years into his term. So why not run for president then?

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/19/2017 - 01:43 pm.

      Seems like it should be a good point, but…


      …which is an interesting cross-tabulation. Take special note of the LAST in the list showing an incidence of 1 only, a solitary data point showing just how far out of the norm was recent presidential election’s result.

      Being a Senator first is not such a stretch for someone with presidential ambitions.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/20/2017 - 10:46 am.

      Second term

      I wouldn’t bet on Trump having a second one.
      Even if he avoids impeachment, Article 25, and stays out of jail for other legal and ethical violations, the Georgia special election, where the Democrat Ossoff nearly gained an overwhelming victory in a special election in what was usually a safe Republican district shows that Trump’s mud is washing off onto the Republican party in general. The Republicans may not want to go down with him, and figure that Pence or some other traditional Conservative might make a better ticket head.
      And even if he does run for a second term, his record setting (except in his own mind) negative poll numbers make it unlikely that he’d sneak in a second time.

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/22/2017 - 06:35 am.

    I wouldn’t bet on Trump having a second one.

    We just don’t have anyone to run against him. And if Trump doesn’t run, the Republicans always have Bill O’Reilly to turn to, and my guess is that he would be just as formidable a candidate as Mr. Trump.

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