Reading Congress' Fundraising Tea Leaves

Who's powerful, who's falling behind and who has a foot out the door?

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Every other January, I troll the political websites and hound fellow political operatives to give me a heads up on one of my favorite phenomenon: impending congressional retirements. Now is when most members of the House and Senate announce their plans for the upcoming mid-term elections. These past 16 days have been chock full of news, and I expect more to come.

One indicator of how a congressman or senator is contemplating their future is to look to "the numbers," aka their fundraising hauls. Fundraising depends on lots of factors: committee assignments, seniority, last election cycle's competitiveness, how a congressional district is drawn, etc. Some members don't have to really work that hard to rake in the dough. Others have to dial for dollars religiously, something I talked about at length a couple of years ago on National Public Radio's This American Life. But when all said and done, they all beg and plead for your money.

To read the tea leaves is pretty easy. Sometimes, though, you have to really dissect the fundraising to glean clues as to what an elected official's next moves are. And in today's political world, where even the greenest of freshmen have so-called leadership PAC's, we have to look at who they're giving their money to. Even more importantly, we want to know how much they are raising for their political party fundraising apparati.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Let's take a look at the House Democrats, specifically at their leadership hauls. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at the end of 2013 had nearly $500,000 in the political bank. Of her dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Pelosi has met her requirement of $800,000. But the Democratic leader also pledged to raise $25 milliion for the DCCC. That's right, there's no rounding error. As of the end of the last year, the first female speaker of the House, that woman every Republican loves to hate publicly, well, she met her goal of $25 million. Add another $1,244,535 that she's given away to her most endangered House Democrats and I'd say the Republicans might want to stop hating her so much and perhaps just be scared of her political fundraising abilities.

Most of the other House Democratic leadership has met their above goals or are well on their way with 10 months more to go. But there are some very senior House Democrats who are the minority heads of their committees who've either fallen asleep or just don't give a damn about their fellow Democrats.

Take Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee. Waters' dues to the DCCC are a measly $500,000. To date, she's only paid $35,000. What's her fundraising goal for the DCCC? $1 million, but to date, she's only paid $67,500. How much has the powerful Waters given to her most endangered House colleagues? Nothing. Not a single dime. Yet, she sits in a very safe California district and has $151,000 on hand to win a seat just by filing for re-election.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is perhaps the second most powerful committee in the lower chamber. Its ranking member is another California Democrat, Henry Waxman. He's paid only $10,000 of his dues to date. Good thing he doesn't have a library card or a country club membership. His goals are the same as Waters' and yet he's only raised $45,000 for the DCCC. Yet he sits on a bank worth nearly half a million bucks. Much the same can be said for the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers. He's a noble man and has served the Congress from Michigan since 1965. He's about $170,000 short on his dues, has raised only $5,000 of his $250,000 goal and has contributed a whopping $250 to the most vulnerable Democrats.

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on Super PACs.]

The ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee is Rep. Colin Peterson, D-Minn. He's been in Congress since 1991 and has been a key player in farm bill negotiations this last year. When a bill is "ripe," aka being debated, you can bet that members with direct control over that legislation are rolling in the dough. Peterson is sitting on a bank of $227,000, but hasn't paid a penny of his dues to the DCCC.

These are the kinds of things that intrigue me, things like how powerful are you, how much money have you raised because of your power and how stingy you are with that money. And that's the rub with trying to guess who's retiring and who's staying.

If I were a betting man, I'd be willing to lay money down that Peterson is retiring. He wants to get that farm bill done and then ride that outgoing wave with nearly a quarter of a million bucks stuffed into his board shorts. Conyers is high on my list of potential retirees too. He'll be 85 years old in May and has slowed down considerably in the last couple of years.

Of course, I could be wrong on these. And to be pointedly clear, in no way do I believe in term limits. All this talk of getting rid of members and Senators after two or three terms is bunk. That's what voters are for and if they don't like who represents them, then they should go convince enough of their neighbors to vote against the incumbent. That, my friends, is called real term limits.

Maybe it's time for some more young blood in Congress, and for that matter on both sides of the aisle. The GOP has a very hard time relating to so-called millennials. Their harsh social rhetoric is a turn off. Democrats, on the other hand, can't just run on a platform of "protecting Social Security and Medicare as we know it." That's a deathwish with the 30 and under crowd.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the government shutdown.]

In the end, perhaps some of these Congressional veterans should look down the dias from their lofty perches to some of the new blood. Take Rep.  Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass. Yes, he's one of those Kennedys of America's most famous political dynasty. You'd think a young freshman just learning the ropes of Washington, D.C. wouldn't have much fundraising draw. After all, he sits on the House Foreign Affairs and Science Committees (yawn). Neither committee is an A-list committee, meaning their members simply don't raise as much as members of, say, the Ways and Means Committee. But there's something interesting going on with Kennedy. He's paid his dues of $125,000 to the DCCC. His fundraising goal for the committee this cycle is supposed to be a paltry $75,000. By the end of last year, he raised $273,500, has written nearly $17,000 in checks to his most vulnerable colleagues and still sits on a political bank of almost $750,000.

Doesn't look like Kennedy is retiring soon, but if some of those veteran House members don't wake up and smell the coffee, they'll find their caucus will have up and forgotten about them. After all, political payback is hell and if you keep all the money you've raised, then the knives will come out.

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