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Insight: In Washington, lawmakers' routines shaped by fundraising

Flags at the Washington Monument flutter in the breeze as the sun casts its last rays on the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington February 5,
Flags at the Washington Monument flutter in the breeze as the sun casts its last rays on the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington February 5,

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For lawmakers in Washington, the daily chase for money can begin with a breakfast fundraiser in the side room of a Washington restaurant.

At noon, there might be a $500-per-plate lunch with lobbyists in a Capitol Hill town house. The day might wrap up in an arena sky box in downtown Washington, watching a basketball game with donors.

In between, there is "call time" - up to four or five hours a day for lawmakers in tough re-election campaigns - in telemarketing-style cubicles a few hundred yards from the Capitol. The call centers, set up by the Democratic and Republican parties, allow lawmakers to chase the checks that fuel campaigns without violating rules that ban fundraising from their offices.

For many lawmakers, the daily routine in Washington involves fundraising as much as legislating. The culture of nonstop political campaigning shapes the rhythms of daily life in Congress, as well as the landscape around the Capitol.

It also means that lawmakers often spend more time listening to the concerns of the wealthy than anyone else.

"People who are being cold-called by members of Congress are people who have a lot of money to give," said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group. "Their concerns are not, 'Can I find a job,' their concerns are, 'How much am I going to be taxed?'"

Few lawmakers are willing to talk about the amount of time they devote to raising money, largely out of concern they might alienate voters or donors.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut is a rare exception. He's won four House and Senate elections since 2006, but he isn't happy with the amount of time he has had to devote to fundraising.

"It's important for us to expose the ugliness of political fundraising, because people are not going to care about this issue if we continue to pretend like it isn't a big part of our lives," Murphy told Reuters.

The drive to raise money never lets up in the House of Representatives, where lawmakers face re-election every two years. House incumbents raised a record average of $1.7 million in the 2012 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That is an average of $2,400 per day in the two-year election cycle.

The pressure is less constant in the Senate, where lawmakers stand for re-election every six years. But the stakes are higher because they represent entire states. Senate incumbents who were up for re-election last year raised an average of $10.3 million, or more than $4,700 per day over six years.

For some, the cramped call centers are a symbol of the problem.

"It smells like a gymnasium locker room after a few hours. It's awful, it's like a sweatshop," said former Representative Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat who said the persistent need to raise money was one of the reasons he resigned from Congress last year.

HIGH-END FUNDRAISING

Other fundraising methods can be more pleasant.

On the day Murphy was interviewed, South Dakota Senator John Thune, a Republican, hosted a breakfast at Bistro Bis, a nearby French restaurant. The price of admission was $1,000 per person.

Around the corner, Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii held a $500-per-person breakfast fundraiser at Johnny's Half Shell, a popular seafood restaurant and lobbying den on Capitol Hill.

Hours later, Republican Senator John Boozman of Arkansas held a $1,000-per-plate lunch event at Johnny's Half Shell. Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho held a $500-per-person lunch at Sonoma, which specializes in California cuisine. And Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican, held a $500-per-person event at Art & Soul, a Southern-style restaurant.

Lawmakers and fundraisers looking for a little more privacy often hold their fundraisers in one of the several nearby town houses that are owned by lobbying firms or trade associations.

A group of town houses on just one tree-lined block across a parking lot from the House of Representatives wing of the Capitol has hosted at least 700 fundraising events since 2008, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

Several lobbyists who declined to speak publicly said that such events give them and their clients a chance to build relationships with policymakers in a relaxed setting.

Although some candidates such as President Barack Obama have been able to raise substantial amounts of money from small donations via the Internet, many office-holders focus their fundraising efforts on those who have the means to write checks up to the legal maximum of $2,600 per election.

House and Senate candidates last year raised more than half of their campaign funds from donors who gave $1,000 or more, according to the left-leaning research group Demos. That money came from a pool of donors who accounted for less than 1 percent of the population.

To reach deep-pocketed donors, candidates hire fundraising consultants to set up prospect lists and monitor their calls to ensure that the lawmakers or their staff members don't linger too long on the phone, lawmakers and aides say.

That doesn't make the process any more appealing, many lawmakers say. Some even try to dodge their own staff.

"Members will 'lose' their (phones) in the gym, they'll 'lose' their cells in the bathroom, they'll do just about anything they can do to get away from their folks who are pestering them to raise money," Cardoza said.

Murphy, the Connecticut senator, said he nearly dropped out of his first race for Congress in 2005 when he realized how much time he would have to spend on the phone asking for money.

He has been through four costly campaigns since then. Last year he raised $10.4 million for his Senate run - far less than the $49.5 million spent by Republican rival Linda McMahon, the professional-wrestling magnate whose campaign was largely self-financed.

Newly elected lawmakers face extra pressure because they have yet to build up the donor networks and name recognition to help them fend off challengers.

For example, freshman Republican Representative David Joyce, who represents a competitive district in northeast Ohio, may need to raise $4 million to stay in office next year now that Democrats have identified him as one of their top targets, said his predecessor Steve LaTourette, a Republican who held the seat for 18 years.

Joyce declined to comment for this story.

"I think he's focused on serving his constituents," said Joyce's spokeswoman, Christyn Keyes.

ASK THE SPOUSE, TOO

Lawmakers with established careers and relatively safe seats are expected to help out vulnerable colleagues in their party.

LaTourette says he was expected to raise $250,000 a year for the National Republican Congressional Committee, his party's political arm. He reached that goal by asking donors to "max out" with a $2,500 check, last year's legal limit. Then he'd ask whether their spouse could give that amount as well.

"It's just very, very time-consuming," he said of fundraising's impact on a lawmaker's routine. "Let's say you've got a competitive race and you've got to raise 3 or 4 million dollars for your re-election. That's a lot of phone calls."

Big-dollar donors typically have different concerns from the population as a whole, especially on economic matters.

According to Reuters/Ipsos opinion polls, Americans who earn more than $250,000 per year are more likely than the overall population to support spending cuts rather than tax increases as a way to reduce budget deficits. They also are more likely to believe that the government should have no role in providing health insurance, and less likely to blame climate change on human activity.

In Connecticut, Murphy said that wealthy donors who work in the financial industry often have urged him to keep regulations to a minimum and keep tax rates low for investment income.

Murphy hasn't followed their advice on some key votes: He supported the 2010 Dodd-Frank overhaul of financial regulations that Wall Street fought against, and this year he voted to raise taxes on the nation's wealthiest households.

Murphy says he tries to set aside time to talk with voters outside of the context of fundraising to ensure that he is not only hearing the concerns of the wealthy.

"You're talking a lot more about arcane tax provisions in financial services policy on fundraising calls then when you go to the supermarket," he said.

Still, the wealthy appear to be getting results in Washington.

According to research by Princeton politics professor Martin Gilens, the U.S. government during the past 40 years has pursued an economic agenda that reflects the concerns of the wealthy - deregulation, free-trade pacts, lower taxes, for example - over the wishes of most middle-class and lower-income voters.

"The role of money in politics, particularly in campaign contributions ... is the most likely explanation for that greater responsiveness," Gilens said.

Congress isn't likely to change that any time soon.

Top Republicans such as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner oppose further limits on campaign fundraising, arguing that they would violate the constitutional right to free speech.

"Money is essential in politics, and not something that we should feel squeamish about," McConnell said last year in a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Murphy and others who want changes in the system acknowledge that their preferred solutions, such as robust public funding of campaigns, aren't likely anytime soon - especially since Obama has not made the issue a priority.

Until then, Murphy says he can only talk about the shortcomings of the current system.

"People are not going to like the fact that I'm admitting that ... over the last six years I've spent portions of my day raising money," Murphy said. "But almost everybody does it here, and if we don't talk about how bad this system is then we're never going to change it."

(Editing by David Lindsey and Claudia Parsons)

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