With Election Day less than five months away, House Democratic leaders are putting the squeeze on their rank-and-file members for more cash.
Specifically, top House Democrats are grumbling that dozens of members have failed to pay their dues, in part or in full, to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — to the tune of millions of dollars. Party strategists say the failure to make these contributions threatens to spoil what could be a historic year for their party.
There has also been talk of “sanctions” against Democrats who don’t cough up their DCCC dues. During a recent Democratic leadership meeting, Rep. Mike Thompson of California suggested that party leaders prevent lawmakers from taking congressional delegation trips, or codels, unless they have paid up. Members might also either be banned from using DCCC offices to do their own fundraising or face some kind of party-enforced restrictions.
While none of these proposed sanctions have been approved by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and other top leaders, even private discussion of such moves has prompted anger and alarm among some majority lawmakers. “I don’t want them telling me that I have to give to the [DCCC] or else,” groused one veteran Democrat. “I have to worry about my own reelection in a difficult environment. That’s my No. 1 priority.”
But to DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who was chairman of the DCCC during the historic 2006 cycle, the issue is a critical one. The DCCC dues program is slated to raise more than $42 million for the committee, roughly one-third of its goal for the entire cycle. As of Wednesday, when a new chart tracking donations by Democratic lawmakers was circulated among the rank and file, slightly more than $25.8 million had been transferred to the DCCC from members’ reelection campaigns. Federal election rules allow unlimited transfers from members’ campaigns to the DCCC and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Having those additional millions of dollars in hand soon would allow the DCCC to make early purchases of TV time in contested districts. Delaying those purchases until later in the cycle would cost the committee a lot of money, as TV air time grows dramatically more expensive as Election Day gets closer.
There is another factor underlying the urgency of the leadership message on DCCC dues: The 2008 elections may present an unparalleled opportunity for Democrats to pick up seats, an opportunity the party cannot afford to squander. And if Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) wins the presidency in November and Democrats hold onto or add to their majorities in the House and Senate, the party could face a more difficult political environment in future cycles.
“It could be years before [Democrats] have so many factors in their favor,” said one party strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “[President] Bush is unpopular, the [Iraq] war is unpopular, Obama is a phenomenon, the Republicans have no message — it may never line up like this for us again.”
DCCC dues range from $800,000 each for Pelosi, Emanuel, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, down to $500,000 for “exclusive committee” chairmen such as Reps. Dave Obey of Wisconsin and John Dingell of Michigan. Rank-and-file lawmakers are required to kick in $125,000 each to the DCCC’s war chest. Several dozen members of the DCCC’s Frontline program, designed to bolster fundraising for Democrats in competitive or swing districts, are exempt from any financial obligations to the committee.
“This is no different than other membership organizations, like the Kiwanis or the Rotary Club,” said Thompson. The California Democrat would not discuss any potential sanctions against Democrat who don’t fork over their DCCC dues, although he did acknowledge taking part in a discussion of the matter among top Democratic leaders last week.
Some veteran Democrats have not given anything to the DCCC this cycle, including Dingell, who is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Reps. Maxine Waters of California, Jim McDermott of Washington, Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois, Pete Stark of California, Lois Capps of California, Jane Harman of California, Bart Stupak of Michigan and Bobby L. Rush of Illinois.
Dingell, though, has raised more than $1 million for the committee, as well as another $568,000 for two DCCC-run programs: Frontline and Red to Blue. While Frontline is designed to help steer money toward vulnerable Democrats, Red to Blue funnels funds to Democratic challengers in GOP-held districts.
But a Dingell spokesman said the Michigan Democrat gave a $250,000 check to the DCCC on Wednesday, taking him off the list of nongivers.
“He cut a $250,000 check today,” said Michael Robbins, Dingell’s spokesman. “He has also been very focused on raising money for the DCCC, Frontline and Red to Blue.”Dingell also recently opened a leadership political action committee, a first in his 54 years in the House.
Waters had only $43,069 in the bank as of March 31 and, despite being a chief deputy whip, has raised only $24,500 for the DCCC.
Waters could not be reached for comment at press time.
Other senior Democrats have given only a fraction of their dues assessment for the cycle. For instance, Pennsylvania Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski, a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, has donated only $15,000 of his $250,000 dues. New York Rep. Michael R. McNulty, chairman of the Social Security subcommittee of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, has given only $10,000 toward his $250,000 dues.
DCCC officials declined to discuss this always sensitive topic. “We appreciate everything members do for the committee; however, we do not discuss their participation publicly,” said Jennifer Crider, DCCC communications director.
The June 18 fundraising chart also shows that Pelosi remains a fundraising juggernaut. The speaker has donated $1 million from her reelection campaign to the DCCC and is credited with raising another $23.7 million for the committee. She has also raised $5.7 million for the Frontline and Red to Blue programs. Hoyer has raised $3.6 million for the DCCC, plus another $3.8 million for vulnerable incumbents and challengers.
The DCCC is also getting help from Obama. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee sent out his first fundraising e-mail solicitation for the committee on Wednesday.
“America, this is our moment. This is our time. Our time to turn the page on the policies of the past. Our time to bring new energy and new ideas to the challenges we face. Our time to offer a new direction for the country we love,” Obama said in his e-mail.
“You and I are clear about our goal. We are out to change Washington in a deep and lasting way, charting a new course for America. That means winning the White House. But it also means building a strong foundation in Congress by electing dozens of new, change-oriented candidates nationwide.”