Rep. Ryan's organization rakes in big dollars
As speaker of the House of Representatives and longtime star of the Republican Party, Paul Ryan is one heck of a fundraiser.
His most recent stop was a $2,500-per-couple dinner last week at a country club in Knoxville, Tennessee. The cost rose to $10,000 per couple for a photo reception before the event, according to news reports.
The fundraiser was for Team Ryan, which is a joint fundraising committee organized under federal election rules.
Many members of Congress and presidential candidates from both major parties have similar organizations, but Team Ryan is among the biggest.
“Paul Ryan raised a record amount for a Republican House Speaker in 2016,” according to a Feb. 3 news release from Team Ryan.
You might think Team Ryan is Ryan's re-election campaign. It's not. It supports Ryan's campaigns, but most of the money goes elsewhere. Most of it ends up paying for other candidates' election campaigns.
Team Ryan announced March 7 that since since the start of the year it already had sent nearly $8 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee. The NRCC supports Republican congressional candidates nationwide.
The release explained: “Team Ryan is Speaker Paul Ryan's federal joint fundraising committee and his national political organization. Team Ryan is dedicated to assisting his re-election efforts in Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District, supporting Republicans across the country who are advancing conservative solutions and raising the resources needed to defend and strengthen the Republican majority in Congress.”
$65 MILLION MAN
Ryan spreads the large sums he raises to support candidates he favors and build support for policies he wants to pass, observers say.
That's how the system worked long before Ryan became speaker of the House, experts say. But a Supreme Court's decision in 2014 opened floodgates, allowing bigger contributions than ever before by lifting a cap on total contributions.
As a result, Team Ryan raised $65.5 million in the 2015-16 election cycle, and Ryan didn't become speaker of the House until the end of 2015.
Team Ryan's donations were nearly double what the previous House speaker, John Boehner, raised for his joint fundraising committee in 2013-14.
Both speakers transferred tens of millions of dollars to the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.
Team Ryan also gives directly to congressional candidates, to Ryan's own campaign and to Ryan's “leadership PAC,” called Prosperity Action PAC, which is another way he supports other Republican candidates.
Raising money is a big part of what House speakers do, said Zack Roday, spokesman for Team Ryan.
“Speakers absolutely have a large role in raising resources for their party. Paul Ryan has been prolific at this responsibility, setting records at every turn,” Roday wrote in an email.
All this money is sure to be a factor in the 2018 congressional elections, which is shaping up to be a donnybrook.
Donors to Team Ryan can write one check and support a wide variety of Republican candidates.
“It just shows that money talks and money makes a difference in elections, and the fact that Speaker Ryan is able to raise that much money just shows the vast influence he has over the party and party committees,” said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs at Common Cause in Washington, D.C.
Common Cause calls itself a nonpartisan, grassroots organization that works for open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest. Critics say it bends to the liberal side.
Scherb said a 2014 Supreme Court decision, McCutcheon v. FEC, made joint fundraising committees like Team Ryan much more lucrative, allowing wealthy donors to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars with a single check.
Before the McCutcheon decision, the total amount of contributions a person could give to all congressional candidates was capped at $48,600. An person could give an additional $74,600 to political action committees and federal party committees.
McCutcheon removed these so-called aggregate limits.
FREE SPEECH OR BRIBERY?
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in that case, “The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.”
Common Cause sees it differently: “There's no doubt we have a broken system that's nothing short of legalized bribery. It gives the most influence to those who spend the most money, and that's hurting America. People know Washington isn't looking out for them and that the game is rigged in favor of big contributors.”
Longtime Wisconsin political operative Brandon Scholz, formerly a congressional aide and chairman of the state Republican Party, argues that modern politics require money because of the high costs of political advertising.
“Remember, these aren't the days when you could put a soapbox up in the town square and holler what you stand for. How we communicate has changed dramatically,” Scholz said.
“So you need money,” Scholz continued. “And if you are going to run for public office--I don't care what level--you have the absolute obligation to make sure voters understand what you stand for. If not, you're cheating. That's wrong.”
Scholz rejects the idea that big contributors are buying lawmakers' votes.
MONEY AND POWER
“Look at Paul Ryan. He is raising a lot of money around the country but from a lot of people and organizations and sources,” Scholz said.
Because of the diversity of funding sources—be it bankers, manufacturers, doctors, dentists--there's no one sector that can dictate to a lawmaker, Scholz argued.
Dominant players, such as unions in Democratic politics, wielded lots of power in the past, Scholz said, adding: “Now there's lots of players in the room.”
But there's no denying the rising flood of donations to political candidates through a variety of mechanisms, not just joint fundraising committees.
All this money-raising is meant to win elections, but it's also part of a game that gives certain members of Congress more power than others.
The rule of the game: The more money you give to others, the bigger your influence and ability to get your agenda enacted.
That's according to UW-Madison political science professor Eleanor Powell, who has researched and written extensively on this topic.
“Historically, members of Congress simply needed to raise money for their personal congressional campaigns, which was often a fairly minor exercise for members representing safe seats,” Powell wrote in her 2016 paper, “Money and Internal Influence in Congress.”
“Today, members must raise money not just for their personal campaign but also for the party and their congressional colleagues in order to be influential in their party and within Congress as a whole,” Powell continued.
“Members from safe, wealthy districts gain additional influence, while the members from vulnerable, less-wealthy districts are disadvantaged,” Powell wrote. “Further, these members from safe districts tend to be more ideologically extreme than members from vulnerable districts, thus exacerbating elite polarization within Congress.”
Members of Congress who gain this influence are more able to advance their personal policy priorities, Powell noted.
MORE AND MORE MONEY
Powell has identified another way politicians can raise money and collect political favors: public appearances.
“By headlining a campaign fundraising event for a colleague, a member can effectively help him raise much more money than the member could have donated directly to the member's campaign. And the money that members help raise for others at these events is not subject to the usual contribution limits on member-to-member giving,” Powell wrote.
The amount of money in federal elections keeps setting records, far outpacing the rate of inflation, Scherb said, and that means 2017-18 is likely to be another record-setting election cycle.
Team Ryan in the first three months of this year has already raised $22.5 million, a point of pride for the organization.
“As we start 2017, Paul is not slowing down and neither are his supporters. He is deeply appreciative of the support and invigorated by the sheer enthusiasm from Americans all across the country,” wrote Kevin Seifert, Ryan's top political adviser and executive director of Team Ryan, in the Feb. 3 news release.
“2017 and 2018 are about delivering results for the American people, and Paul Ryan is ready to meet that challenge head-on and get America back on track,” Seifert continued. “It's encouraging that many across the nation feel the same way.”