Of the many methods that members of Congress can use to help out their colleagues, their party or some other political cause, digging into their own pockets may not seem the most appealing — not when they can establish joint fundraising committees, contribute from their campaign committees, or create leadership PACs to share the wealth. Still, it’s something that a number of lawmakers do — sometimes very generously, given the wealth of the average incumbent. And Democrats do so to a far greater degree than Republicans.
The biggest donors among the 532 sitting House and Senate members, going back to the 1990 cycle (before many of them were elected) and including contributions by spouses, tend to be one-half of a wealthy political power couple. That’s true for the top lifetime contributor, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), whose husband S. Donald Sussman is the 2014 cycle’s 15th largest individual donor (although Pingree herself has made more than $110,000 in donations this cycle alone). And it’s also the case for Nos. 3 and 4 on the list, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.).
No. 2 is Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who has for decades put his storied family’s fortune to work supporting Democratic candidates (and, more recently, super PACs). In fifth place is the third richest member of Congress, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), whose 2012 net worth CRP estimated at nearly $198 million.
|Rockefeller, Jay||Senate||Democrat||West Virginia||
|Delaney, John K||House||Democrat||Maryland||
(The numbers above exclude any contributions made by lawmakers to their own campaigns.)
Led by those five mega-donors, current Democratic lawmakers have given more than twice as much all-time as their Republican counterparts — $14.2 million to $6.1 million. Proportionally, the Democratic edge in contributions per member is even bigger, since there are currently more Republicans in Congress (278) than Democrats (244), and that’s despite the fact that congressional Democrats are not substantially richer than Republicans.
Members of Congress focus their donations on party committees and candidates in roughly equal measure, targeting 40 percent of their contributions to the former and 38 percent to the latter. Feinstein and Rockefeller are reliable supporters of party committees, each having given over $1 million, while others focus almost exclusively on fellow candidates — such as Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), who has given $135,750 to campaigns out of $148,480 total. Outside groups make up 16 percent of contributions from members thanks almost exclusively to Pingree’s husband, while all other recipients (leadership PACs and unaffiliated PACs) — took in less than 6 percent.
Donations across party lines are rare — though when they occur, they make for good attack ad fodder in primaries. Current members of Congress have made $138,670 in cross-party contributions since 1989, or about 0.6 percent of their total contributions. Some of these come from party-switchers like Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.). Others were made before the donor was elected: Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.), for inst who presumably needed to cultivate goodwill on both sides of the aisle, and still others from spouses with bipartisan leanings.
Still, while politicians are naturally more apt to give out of their own pockets than the average wealthy American, it’s important not to overstate the sums of money involved. The median current congressperson has given a total of barely $6,000 over all cycles since 1990, or a little more than one maxed-out contribution to a candidate. And there are 31 lawmakers who have never made a contribution of more than $200 that CRP was able to identify.
This cycle, current members and their spouses have donated less than $3.3 million altogether; if all of Congress were a single individual, that would place him/her only seventh on the cycle’s list of top donors. And it’s less than one-tenth of the money donated by the leadership PACs run by these same members — another way for them to get credit for helping out, and one that doesn’t require them to deplete their personal accounts.
Andrew joined the Center for Responsive Politics in February 2013 as the researcher responsible for committees. Before joining CRP, he was a fellow with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Andrew has a B.A. in political science from Yale, where he was the treasurer of Students for a New American Politics, the country’s largest student-run PAC
This article first appeared in OpenSecrets.org. Click here to go to the original.