Money and Democracy

Published — November 18, 2011 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

15 Tea Party Caucus freshmen rake in $3.5 million in first 9 months in Washington

Tea Party rally in Washington, D.C. Evan Vucci/AP

‘Business as usual,’ one election watchdog says.


On her website, Rep. Diane Black asks constituents to join advisory panels in her Tennessee district. “I believe the best ideas to solve our nation’s problems will come from people like you,” Black writes, “not Washington bureaucrats and special interest groups.”

Black is one of the new Republicans who rode a wave of anti-Washington sentiment into town in 2011, a self-identified member of the tea party wing that has been cast as a new kind of conservative— fiery, unwilling to compromise and determined to downsize the government. But while many say Black and her companions have created a split in the Republican Party, it is not visible among the companies and interest groups that are donating to members of Congress.

A joint analysis by iWatch News and the Center for Responsive Politics has found that the 15 freshmen members of the Tea Party Caucus have embraced many of the same special interests that have supported Republicans for years. The fifteen combined have received over $3,450,000 during the first three quarters of this year from almost 700 different PACs.

It’s an impressive haul for a group of newly elected House members. But it shouldn’t be surprising that these fresh faces found new friends in Washington.

Business as usual,” says Mary Boyle of good-government group Common Cause. “The lobbyists and other traditional Washington powers know that the newbies will learn fast that they need them, and their rolodexes.”

It may well be, but some of the freshmen appear to have their eyes wide open.

Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., has received more than $252,000 from PACs, accounting for about two-thirds of the money he has raised this year. His chief of staff, Fred Piccolo, was unapologetic for the donations the congressman has received. “One person’s ‘special interest’ is another person’s ‘personal interest,’” he said.

Among the biggest PAC donors to the tea party freshmen are familiar Washington faces, including Honeywell International, which led the way both in number of donations and overall money given. The top five corporate PACs that donated to these freshmen:

  • Honeywell International, a Fortune 100 company best known for its defense manufacturing, made 52 donations worth at least $105,000
  • The American Bankers Association, one of the major trade associations for the financial sector, made 31 donations worth at least $53,000
  • Lockheed Martin, one of the biggest defense contractors in the country, with 30 donations for at least $28,000
  • Koch Industries, the company run by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, made 29 donations worth at least $38,000
  • The National Association of Realtors, a major trade group for real estate agents, with 29 donations worth $34,000

The fifteen members also took a significant amount of money from ideological groups, including at least $100,000 from the PAC of Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, at least $55,000 from the Boehner-affiliated Freedom Project, and at least $42,000 from the Republican Majority Committee PAC. Groups in this category were critical to the financial success of many of these candidates in 2010. Since their victories, however, these members are finding financial support for their campaigns from a much wider selection of interests in Washington.

Black, one of the richest members of Congress, seems to have quickly learned her way around town. She leads the way as the most successful fundraiser in the bunch, having raised at least $418,000 from PACs alone through the first three quarters.

Overall, this group of freshmen representatives has become just as reliant on PAC money as their counterparts who have been in the House longer. The median Tea Party Caucus freshman brought in roughly 44 percent of their money from PACs, 43 percent from large individual donors, and 4 percent from small donors who gave less than $200 each. Comparatively, the median House Republican got 46 percent from PACs, 45 percent from large individuals and 4 percent from small individual donors.

One freshman caucus member who stands out among his peers is Rep. Allen West, who represents Florida’s 22nd district. Early on in the 2010 election West became a phenomenon, one who was able to raise massive amounts from small contributions around the country as if he were a national figure. And the influx of contributions has not slowed. While he has raised at least $210,000 from PACs through the first nine months of this year, the percentage of money he has received in from individual donations of $200 or less has actually increased since his election, something rarely seen among politicians.

The Bankers Association is another notable, given the full throated support of the financial system raised by some members of the Tea Party Caucus. Freshman Joe Walsh recently screamed at a constituent who asked about big banks’ role in the financial collapse, “Don’t blame the banks … that pisses me off.” In fact, over 17 percent of the money brought in by the Tea Party Caucus freshmen came from the financial institution, according to CRP numbers.

Ross, the Florida congressman, was somewhat surprised by how much fundraising a freshman member has to do, Chief of Staff Piccolo said. “It has definitely been more than anticipated, but in the end, many of these folks represent organizations with tens of thousands of employees and a direct impact on the district…. [Ross’] willingness to stand against feeding at the DC spending trough have endeared him to some and angered others.”

“For every ‘special interest’ that writes a check, there are an equal number that would write one to an opponent.”

“Newcomers quickly realize that if they want to stay in Congress, they must immediately begin raising lots of money” says Common Cause’s Boyle. “So they go to the people and interests who are more than happy to give it – those who want something from Congress.”

“Sadly, it’s what you have to do to survive in this system, and that’s why it must be changed, so that lawmakers don’t take office owing favors to their biggest campaign donors. “

The Tea Party Caucus is an official house caucus founded by Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., in 2010. Although many conservative Republicans have been identified as being tea party supporters, there are only 60 official members of the caucus. When asked if there was a freshman representative to the caucus, spokeswoman Becky Rogness said that the only official is Rep. Bachmann. And because the caucus is an official government entity, “it is not involved in political campaigning or fundraising.”

In response to questions for this article, Honeywell spokesman Rob Ferris said “Honeywell’s Political Action Committee supports those who support the policies that are most important to our company and are in the best interest of growing the American economy and creating American jobs.” He declined to answer follow up questions, as did Lockheed spokesman Jeff Adams after stating that “Lockheed Martin supports a wide range of political leaders based on their level of interest and commitment in national security, homeland security, and other issues of importance to the corporation including education and technology.”

Sara Wiskerchen, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Realtors, said that “NAR is the most bipartisan PAC in the country” and bases it’s giving on candidates with “have strong records of support for homeownership and private property rights.” When asked if members of the Tea Party Caucus were more sympathetic to the concerns of the NAR, Wiskerchen said “No, support for homeownership issues we consider important varies across all political parties and depends strongly on the issue.”

Request for comments were not returned from the American Bankers Association or Koch Industries. All 15 of the freshmen mentioned were contacted. Anyone not quoted here did not respond to a request for comment.

Aaron Mehta is a staff writer with the Center for Public Integrity. Bob Biersack is a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics.

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