Follow the Leader (and the money!)

The race to succeed Henry Waxman (D-CA) as the top-ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee began within days of Waxman announcing that he would retire from Congress at the end of this year. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the third-ranking Democrat on the committee, immediately threw his hat in the ring, as did fifth-ranking Anna Eshoo (D-CA).

When it comes to awarding committee chairmanships and leadership posts, Democrats have traditionally placed a strong emphasis on seniority. Republicans value seniority, but it is one of many factors they weigh when choosing their committee chairs and leaders. Republicans also term limit their committee chairs and leaders to 6 years while Democrats do not place length-of-service restrictions on their members.

If seniority prevails, Pallone will be the next Ranking Member on Energy and Commerce. If Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (and fellow Californian) prevails, Anna Eshoo will take the party’s top spot on the committee. While Eshoo has Pelosi on her side, Pallone counts House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) as a supporter. Pallone is also likely to attract the support of the party’s most senior members, many of whom are beneficiaries of the seniority system. But there’s another factor at play in the race… one that may matter just as much as seniority.

Recognizing that she faces a tough battle, Anna Eshoo did what most ambitious members do: She established a leadership Political Action Committee (PAC). Leadership PACs provide members with a way to raise money that they can then use for all kinds of vaguely defined campaign-related purposes. Leadership PACs can accept contributions from individuals and other PACs of up to $5,000 per year and they can make contributions of up to $5,000 per candidate, per race. Members’ individual campaign accounts can only accept contributions of up to $2,600 from individuals and $5,000 from PACs per race, and they can make contributions of up to $2,600 per candidate, per race.

Having a leadership PAC provides members with a way to rake more money in, and hand more money out. Today, “spreading the wealth” is a standard tactic that chair and leadership wannabees use to curry favor with their colleagues.  As Roll Call recently reported, Frank Pallone and Anna Eshoo have both significantly upped their contributions to colleagues as they compete for the Ranking Member slot on Energy and Commerce. In the year’s first quarter, Pallone gave a total of $65,000 to 43 of his Democratic House colleagues from his personal campaign committee, and $61,000 to colleagues from his leadership PAC. During the same period, Eshoo gave $8,000 to four of her Democratic colleagues from her campaign committee, and disbursed $66,000 from her newly formed leadership PAC to 33 colleagues. Both gave heavily to the party’s most vulnerable candidates.

As the fundraising arms race to replace Waxman moves into full-swing in the coming months, keep this little-noted irony in mind: Henry Waxman was the first member of Congress to create a leadership PAC. In 1978, Waxman, then a two-term member, decided to challenge Richardson Preyer (D-NC), a respected and way-more-senior colleague, for the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health. Waxman actively lobbied his committee colleagues and enlisted his allies in the organized labor community to back him up. When it looked like seniority would prevail, Waxman did something that no member of Congress had ever before done: He established a leadership PAC and contributed $24,000 to his committee colleagues. After a large number of last-minute vote switches, Waxman defeated Preyer by a 15-12 vote. And with that, Waxman set a new precedent for enterprising politicians—including Frank Pallone and Anna Eshoo!

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Marian Currinder is Senior Fellow and Curriculum Chair at the Government Affairs Institute

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