Article — From the March 2008 issue

Beltway Bacchanal

Congress lives high on the contributor’s dime

Try to list the stakes at play in the congressional elections this fall, and one might settle on health care, taxes, immigration, Iraq. Seldom considered, though, is an issue of more direct importance to the members of Congress themselves: Which party will get to live more lushly in the nation’s capital, where those who control the levers of legislation also command the most and best perks? Washington by and large is a restrained, workaday sort of town, its residents not known for high living; but a significant exception can always be found among the denizens of Capitol Hill, and especially among the legislators who command a majority there. For this convivial crew and its hangers-on, the most pressing matter to be decided on Election Day is, as ever, whether they can hold on to that majority and all its accompanying boons.

The most lavish benefit of winning a congressional campaign is, ironically enough, the right to keep on campaigning—and therefore to keep raising and spending donor money. Uninformed citizens may still think of “campaigns” as discrete events, waged mostly in home districts and just before election time. In fact, political fund-raising is now a nonstop activity, with candidates chasing dollars far outside the borders of their home states and districts. And although the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is supposed to monitor the use of this money, it has interpreted the relevant rules in a highly flexible fashion. Politicians have two primary vehicles with which to raise and spend money, the first being their campaign treasuries, which according to ethics rules must be kept “separate from [the member’s] personal funds” and can be used only for “bona fide campaign or political purposes.” But in practice the FEC has permitted virtually any expenditure, from a night on the town to a resort stay with big contributors, to be drawn from these funds. (Last October, in a rare act of censure, the FEC cited New York Demo-cratic Congressman Gregory Meeks for using $6,230 to pay for a personal trainer, whose services initially had been justified by his office as necessary to alleviate stress brought on by “the candidate’s duties.”) Spending from the second vehicle—the Leadership PAC—is less restrictive still, since it is not even subject to the nominal “personal use” prohibition that applies to campaign treasuries. Furthermore, individual contribution limits to Leadership PACs are $5,000 per year, versus $2,300 per election for political campaigns. Not surprisingly, most senators and more than a third of House members now run Leadership PACs, which were quite rare as recently as a decade ago. During the 2006 election cycle, fund-raising by Leadership PACs exceeded $160 million.

Most of the political spending by members of Congress is no doubt legitimate, at least under existing rules, because it is in fact connected (if often tenuously) to winning reelection. But as the “campaign” has lost all temporal and spatial boundaries, and the FEC has largely turned a blind eye, misuse of donor money has become positively shameless. Those who hold safe seats spend just as freely as those in highly competitive districts, if not more so, and these allegedly campaign-related expenditures continue year-round. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (which helpfully provided much of the data for this article), at least eight House members spent more than $10,000 in campaign funds on food, travel, and fund-raising in the eight weeks between Election Day 2006 and New Year’s Eve—not exactly a peak campaigning period. These included Democrat John Murtha and Republican Don Young, whose respective margins of victory were 22 and 17 percent. Three of the other big spenders, interestingly enough, were Republicans who lost their seats in the 2006 midterm vote; in their dwindling days of public service, they apparently decided to treat themselves well on the way out.

Inside Washington itself, such casual appropriation of political contributions bankrolls much of the city’s social life. Some of the spending on food and drink is related to fund-raising events, but a notable portion is for private restaurant meals—sometimes classified in disclosure forms under the category of “political meetings.” These “meetings” are held at a circuit of nightspots that include the two political parties’ clubs—the semiprivate National Democratic Club and, for Republicans, the strictly cloistered Capitol Hill Club—and otherwise range from such old standbys as Morton’s (where, in the 1980s, the corrupt House boss Dan Rostenkowski held court so frequently that a bronze plaque near the bar read “Rosty’s Rotunda”) to chic eateries like Bistro Bis and the Sonoma Wine Bar. Most Americans could not afford to eat at any of these restaurants. The price of an appetizer alone—like the $15.95 lobster mac-and-cheese at the Oceanaire or the $18 crabmeat, lobster, and shrimp cocktail at the Capitol Hill Club (why settle for one when you can have all three?) —tends to be daunting. The à la carte entrées begin at the low end with items like the stuffed rabbit loin at Bistro Bis ($29.50), move up to the signature porterhouse at the Capital Grille ($41) or the double-cut prime rib at Morton’s ($43), and for the truly memorable occasion climb to $20 per ounce (5-ounce minimum) for the Kobe strip steak at Charlie Palmer’s. With drinks, dessert, and a tip, a meal for two can easily run into the hundreds of dollars.

In the land of the permanent campaign, though, these are the everyday haunts of our elected leaders. Between 2005 and late 2007, at just ten of Washington’s priciest restaurants, House members collectively spent $5.4 million of their campaign money. (Note that this does not even include senators, who typically spend even more than their colleagues in the lower chamber; but because senators are not required to file disclosure forms electronically, categorizing their expenses with any specificity is a nearly impossible task.)

Last year, in the aftermath of scandals involving Jack Abramoff and Randy “Duke” Cunningham, among others, Congress passed an ethics bill that barred lobbyists from directly buying members food and drinks, a step that was hailed as imposing a barrier between lawmakers and special interests. But political donations continue to underwrite legislators’ nightly entertainment in Washington—helping to maintain the hermetic Beltway bubble in which lawmakers fraternize with precisely those people from whom ethics laws, and the demands of good governance, aim to separate them.

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. His last article for the magazine, “Making Mitt Romney,” appeared in the November 2007 issue.

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October 2019