Industries direct cash to influential committee leaders, report shows

Congress and cash

It pays to head a committee on Capitol Hill. While it's no secret that businesses try to influence Congress with campaign donations, a new study helps to quantify the extent of those efforts.

A report released Wednesday from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) found that as lawmakers move up the ranks of certain committees, the industries they are expected to regulate direct more money to their campaigns.

Focusing on both the current chairs and the top lawmakers from the opposing party of 10 key committees, CREW examined campaign contributions from the 1998 election cycle through the 2010 election. As those 20 legislators rose in power, their contributions increased by 230 percent overall -- but campaign contributions from the industries they're supposed to regulate rose by nearly 600 percent.

As much as 27 percent of the donations the committee leaders received in the 2010 election cycle came from the industries they're responsible for overseeing, the study found. In 1998, when those same 20 lawmakers were mostly junior members of their respective committees, they received just 13 percent of their donations from those industries.

As an example, House Agriculture chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., saw his campaign contributions increase 175 percent from 1998 to 2010. But his contributions specifically from the agriculture sector increased 531 percent.

In the 2010 election cycle -- right after Lucas assumed the chairmanship -- the industry tripled its contributions to his campaign committee and political action committee. Donations from that sector accounted for 41 percent of the contributions he received in the 2010 cycle.

Similarly, the top Democrat on the panel, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, saw his donations from the agriculture industry grow by 711 percent since 1998, even though his total contributions over that period grew by just 274 percent.

CREW found that members see an especially big spike in contributions from the industries they're responsible for in the election cycle immediately before they become the chairman or ranking member of a committee. The group found these trends to hold across industries, committees and party affiliation with few exceptions.

"Almost across the board, industries and interest groups are engaging in what amounts to legalized bribery by funneling enormous amounts of money to the very lawmakers who are supposed to be holding their feet to the fire," CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said in a statement. "Congress would be a lot more transparent if it just put a for sale sign on the front of the Capitol."

The group's analysis showed that these leaders sometimes -- but not always -- favor the industries they oversee more than other members of their party.

Since January 2011, for instance, Lucas has voted in agreement with the industries he oversees 93 percent of the time, CREW found. The average Republican voted with the industry 87 percent of the time. In that same time frame, Peterson has voted with the industry 72 percent of the time. The average Democrat voted with the industry just 27 percent of the time.