Redistributing Campaign Funds by U.S. House Members: The Spiraling Costs of the Permanent Campaign

Published date01 November 2005
Date01 November 2005
597Redistributing Campaign Funds
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Gettysburg College
Redistributing Campaign Funds by
U.S. House Members: The Spiraling
Costs of the Permanent Campaign
In this article, we document and analyze the increase in the redistribution of
campaign funds by U.S. House members during the 1990 through 2000 election
cycles. By examining the contribution activity of members’ leadership PACs and
principal campaign committees, we show that House incumbents substantially
increased their contributions to other House candidates and to the congressional
campaign committees. The amount of money a member redistributes is a function of
that member’s institutional position: the greater the position’s level of responsibility
to the party caucus, the more campaign money the member redistributes, particularly
as competition for majority control increases. Also, a member’s capacity to raise
surplus campaign funds, his or her support for the party’s policy positions, and the
level of competition for partisan control of the institution all affect the amount the
member redistributes.
As Jacobson (1985–86) pointed out, the individual reelection
interests of House incumbents do not sit easily with the collective elec-
toral interests of the congressional parties. But while incumbents will
always give priority to their own reelections, there is clearly “a new
accommodation between incumbents’ individual and collective interests”
(Sorauf 1992, 118). This new accommodation is illustrated by the
increasing sums of campaign money provided by House incumbents to
their fellow party candidates and to the congressional campaign
committees (Bedlington and Malbin 2003; Herrnson 1997, 108–110;
Herrnson 2000, 97–100; Sabato and Larson 2002, 84–88).
This article offers an analysis of member-to-candidate and
member-to-party contribution activity in the U.S. House. Earlier research
by Wilcox (1989; 1990), Wilcox and Genest (1991), and Baker (1989)
considerably advanced our understanding of member contribution
activities, but these studies were conducted prior to the dramatic increase
598 Eric S. Heberlig and Bruce A. Larson
in these activities that occurred during the 1990s. Moreover, this article
builds on the primarily descriptive accounts of member contribution
activities that have been offered by more-recent studies (Bedlington
and Malbin 2003; Herrnson 1997; Sabato and Larson 2002), providing
a theoretical basis for understanding this activity.
House Incumbents as Campaign Contributors
House members have several ways of contributing to other
candidates and to the party campaign committees. First, members can
make contributions through their principal campaign accounts, the
committees they use to raise and spend money for their own elections.
Second, members may contribute through “leadership” political action
committees, multicandidate committees sponsored by incumbents to
raise and spend money on political activities outside of their own
reelection campaigns. Contributions from both types of committees
are, in effect, redistributions of the campaign funds that incumbents
raise from individuals, political action committees (PACs), and political par-
ties. Hence, we refer to this behavior generally as “redistribution activity.”1
Different federal contribution limits govern donations from
members’ campaign committees and leadership PACs. For both types
of committees, moreover, the regulations governing contributions to
candidates differ from the regulations governing contributions to the
national parties. (See Table 1 for a summary of the regulations.)
Theory and Hypotheses
We begin with the assumption that members desire reelection but
also have goals of good public policy and power within the institution
(Fenno 1973). We also assume that all members would prefer to serve
in the majority party than in the minority party. Since it is the majority
party that structures and controls the legislative process in the House,
majority party members get policy outcomes closer to their ideal pref-
erences than do minority party members (Sinclair 2002; but see Krehbiel
1998). Membership in the majority party also gives incumbents signifi-
cant fund-raising advantages with corporate and trade PACs (Cox and
Magar 1999), thereby helping to advance members’ individual reelection
goals. Thus, we expect contribution patterns to be responsive to the
level of competition for majority control (see also Currinder 2003 and
Kolodny and Dwyre 1998). As we will detail later, this responsiveness to
competition will be especially important for members who have institu-
tional positions that are more valuable to members of the majority party.

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