There's nothing particularly subtle about raising campaign money in Washington. No big surprise there.
Still, it can be eye-opening to see how blatant the appeals for cash are, especially when members of Congress solicit donations from lobbyists and special-interest groups.
To state the obvious, a basic goal of this type of fund-raising is to maximize a senator or congressman's take from those who want to influence Congress. And what better way to do that than to make sure a prospective donor knows where the senator or congressman has the most clout?
For a glimpse into how it's done, consider this invitation from Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore. The event, a fund-raising luncheon Tuesday at a fashionable Capitol Hill restaurant, is virtually identical to hundreds of such events that take place every month in Washington.
The Cummings invite lists, in detail, positions of importance or rank held by the Democratic congressman:
Senior member, House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Chairman, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation
Senior Member, Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials
Senior Member, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
Senior Member, Subcommittee on Domestic Policy
Member, Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia
Senior Member, Joint Economic Committee
The purpose here isn't necessarily to single Cummings out. What he's doing is standard operating procedure in Washington.
Instead, the point is to illustrate how transparent the appeals for money can be and, in particular, how baldly members of Congress advertise their proximity to specific centers of power.
Tickets to the Cummings luncheon at Bistro Bis run from $1,000 for individuals to $2,500 for PACs. The price schedule is the same for another Cummings fund-raiser, a dinner at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Baltimore, originally scheduled for Monday night. (The event was postponed to April 19, same location, same price, because the House held a make-up session Monday for a snow day taken earlier this month.) A Cummings campaign fund-raising aide said she couldn't estimate what the congressman would net from the events.
Another local example of the same phenomenon: On Tuesday evening, at a townhouse conveniently located near House office buildings, Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr., a Democrat from Maryland's Eastern Shore, will stage his latest campaign fund-raising reception (contributions: $500 to $2,500).
The invitation advertises Kratovil's membership on the Armed Forces, Agriculture and Natural Resources committees. Not coincidentally, the freshman congressman has already benefited from contributions made by those with business before the panels, and Congress in general; many of those special-interest donors only started giving to Kratovil after he won election to the House in 2008.
An added lure: Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking officer of the House, invites prospective donors to join him at the Kratovil event, implying that those who give will get to rub elbows with one of the most powerful men in Washington.
A non-partisan watchdog on campaign money, the Center for Responsive Politics, explains that the political money chase "is never-ending for members of Congress -- and social events from breakfasts to barbeques, sporting events to concerts, are held to help fill the coffers. Often hosted by lobbyists or other well-healed insiders, these events provide opportunities for attendees to support politicians and establish a connection and access to the member.”
In contrast to limits placed on members of the Maryland General Assembly, who aren't allowed to raise money for their state campaigns while the legislature is in session, every day is, legally, a money-raising day for senators and congressman.
With elections approaching this year, Marylanders in Congress have stepped up the fund-raising pace.
Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards collected re-election money with a breakfast Monday at the National Democratic Club townhouse in Washington. The event had a serious-minded twist: a discussion on jobs and the economy. But the bottom line was the same ("Requested contribution--Sponsor: $2,500, PAC: $1,000, Individual: $500").
Democratic Rep. C. A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger will host an evening reception in a couple weeks at Bobby Van's restaurant in Washington ($500-$5,000). For those who prefer to wait, he's got a fund-raiser at Oriole Park on June 8, when the Yankees are in town (Price per ticket: $750 for an individual, $1,500 for a PAC).
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, dean of Democratic women in the Senate, has a big fund-raising event planned for March 15, with her female colleagues as the draw.
Hoyer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who occupy leadership positions--Van Hollen heads his party's congressional campaign committee--are drumming up money for other Democratic candidates. As a result, they are among the state's most active fund-raisers.
The practice of spreading the wealth isn't limited to those near the top of the leadership chain. Officeholders who aspire to greater power also take an interest in helping others.
Like many rank-and-file members in both major parties, Cummings began transferring money last year to candidates in competitive 2010 contests around the country. Yet, when the year began, he still had three quarters of a million dollars in his campaign account, with more is on the way.
Cummings, re-elected last time with 80 percent of the vote, has one of the safest House seats in the nation. In fact, no Marylander in Congress, with the notable exception of Kratovil, is currently regarded vulnerable by independent analysts.
Still, one of the best ways to keep a seat safe is to continue putting money in the bank. The larger the stockpile, the harder it becomes for a challenger to launch a campaign spending war.
That may help explain why Sen. Benjamin Cardin, the sole member of the Maryland delegation who won't be facing voters this year, isn't sitting on the sidelines.
The Democratic senator--whose next election is in 2012--has invited prospective donors to a Capitol Hill townhouse one morning next week for "bagels with Ben." Suggested contribution: $1,000. Cream cheese and lox, no extra charge.