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Congressional ‘dues’ help garner good committee assignments

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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.)