Where Money Meets Power In Washington

Originally published on April 6, 2012 3:15 pm

"Political fundraiser" has a fancy ring to it — tuxedos, famous singers, billionaires. In fact, most political fundraisers aren't that glamorous.

Think instead of a dozen lobbyists eating breakfast with a Congressman in a side room at some DC restaurant. Off in a corner, someone who works for the Congressman is holding the checks the lobbyists brought to get in the door.

On today's All Things Considered, Andrea Seabrook talks with Audie Cornish about the world of political fundraisers. It's the latest in our series on money in politics. See the whole series here.

A couple graphics we published last week as part of the series are particularly relevant to the conversation. So we're republishing them.

Here's a breakdown of all fundraisers, by type:

Not all fundraisers are dull. Here's a count of fancy events from 2008 through early 2012:

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Of course, election season means fundraising season. This year is on track to be the most expensive political year in U.S. history. An entire industry sprouts from candidates' voracious need for campaign cash. And our Planet Money team crunched some raw data from the Sunlight Foundation; that's an open government group. NPR's Andrea Seabrook joins me now to talk more about it. Hey there, Andrea.


CORNISH: So what are these fundraisers like? I assume we're talking swanky dinners and glamorous cocktail parties.

SEABROOK: No. Banish that from your head. When I say fundraiser, I want you to think breakfast, okay? Fundraiser.

CORNISH: Breakfast, bacon and eggs.

SEABROOK: Fundraiser.


SEABROOK: Okay. So what happens is - we've actually gone through more than 13,000 invitations to actual fundraisers. These are from presidential fundraisers, that(ph) election, to congressional, all over the country, and we have found that a quarter of them happen at breakfast time.

CORNISH: What's the deal? Why breakfast?

SEABROOK: Well, you have to have breakfast, right?

CORNISH: Yeah, you do. But I always thought it was a rubber chicken dinner, right? That's the joke about fundraisers.

SEABROOK: It is the joke about fundraisers, and to be sure, you know, there are a bunch of them. Ten percent of the more than 13,000 happened at dinner. But the fact that so many happen at breakfast, the reason why is because Congress has this ecosystem in Washington and a big part of that ecosystem, while lawmakers are actually in town, is getting up in the morning, going and doing a fundraiser first before you even get started because you've got this sliver of time in the morning where you can go over, have your coffee, speak to all the - usually lobbyists that are at the fundraiser, collect the checks, and scram, get back to your actual jobs.

CORNISH: And really, I mean, how many fundraisers are going on at any given time in the week?

SEABROOK: Well, we found that all of the lawmakers that we spoke to spend two or three hours a day raising money...


SEABROOK: ...while they're in Washington. And in peak fundraising season, this is from the analysis of these invitations, there are at least 20 fundraisers a day in Washington. Some of them are more exciting. Let me give you some examples here. Just last week, two different senators, John Thune of South Dakota, he's in the Republican leadership, and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, both invited donors to the Van Halen concert that was at the Verizon Center this weekend.

Yeah. And for that privilege, these people could pay $1500, up to $2500. Here's one for Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. She is having a little fundraiser. It's a breakfast at a law firm, which is a lobbying firm, and here's the invitation right here. I want to point out to you that it's very helpful. There's a place for them to just put their credit card number...

CORNISH: Oh, right there on the invitation.

SEABROOK: ...right down there, yeah. It's $2500, so you know, just stick your card number there. There you go, yeah.

CORNISH: So Andrea, what about when they're home during the district recess, or as they like to call it, the work period?

SEABROOK: Yes, it is a prime time for these members of Congress to hit up their big donors back in their districts and their states. They have a lot of hunting trips. We saw quite a few pheasant hunts. There are a lot of sports games, basketball, baseball, especially golf. There are a lot of golf trips. One congressman told us that after he was first elected, he took a total of five days off from fundraising and was right back at it even two months before he was sworn into office.

CORNISH: So Andrea, why is it the most expensive year in terms of political fundraising?

SEABROOK: You know, there are a lot of reasons. I mean, you know, the television costs go up and there's all kinds of money you have to spend on new media and so on and so forth, but it seems like this year every candidate we talk to, every politician we talk to is feeling a much greater pressure to raise, raise, raise, more and more money - in light of the Citizens United case before the Supreme Court.

Because all of these lawmakers, even people who used to feel safe, now they know that sometimes unnamed interests from outside of politics could spend any amount of dollars in their campaigns at the last minute. And they have to arm themselves. It's almost like a cold war is going on in money and politics.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Andrea Seabrook. She's working with our Planet Money team. Thanks so much, Andrea.

SEABROOK: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.