Pro-transparency organization MAPLight has released an analysis of the campaign contributors to the members of Congress' 12-member national debt "super committee." As with much campaign finance information in a post-Citizens United world, such data is informative but insufficient, only providing a glimpse of who has actually spent money to elect or re-elect these lawmakers.
Altogether, the numbers do not show any particularly surprising campaign contribution trends, with lawyers and law firms (which in many cases means "lobbyists and lobbying firms"), the financial world, and ideologically-based groups like the conservative Club for Growth and liberal EMILY's List all well represented. While investigating contributions is without a doubt useful, such data must be viewed alongside outside spending on advertisements, mailings, and other communications advocating for or against particular candidates or their policy positions.
Federal law limits campaign contributions, allowing individuals to give only $2,500 to any candidate per election and allowing multicandidate PACs to give $5,000 per election. In contrast, the January 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC allowed for corporations and unions to spend unlimited money from their own coffers directly advocating for or against candidates, and since then, outside groups have taken great advantage of that ruling.
MAPLight reports that the Club for Growth contributed $1,008,884 to super committee members from 2001 through 2010 through its political action committee and direct contributions from its employees and members. But, in the 2010 election cycle alone, the club spent an additional $2.7 million in independent expenditures advocating Pennsylvania Republican Senator and super committee member Pat Toomey (or against his opponent, former Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak) in their 2010 senatorial campaign, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Likewise, MAPLight reports that the Chamber of Commerce donated only $17,500 (not including employee contributions) to committee members, but the Center for Responsive Politics reports that the Chamber spent $997,525 in supporting Washington Democratic Senator and committee member Patty Murray's opponent in her 2010 campaign. And public-sector labor union AFSCME donated only $165,000 to the committee members over 10 years (again, not including employee contributions), but spent $400,000 opposing Toomey in 2010.
Some have voiced concerns about the potential for well-moneyed interest groups to buy the influence of the committee members in the near future. Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, for example, has introduced the Super Committee Sunshine Act, which would require committee members to disclose all campaign donations of $1,000 or more within 48 hours of receiving those donations for as long as they are on the committee. While such a bill is certainly intended as a step towards meaningful campaign finance accountability, a look at the broader data shows how campaign contributions are becoming less and less meaningful, and that concerns about who has "bought influence" of these committee members with contributions ultimately miss the point.
Corrected on : Updated on 08/16/11: The total contribution figure for Club for Growth tabulated by MAPLight has been updated.