Incumbent Contributions to the Congressional Campaign Committees, 1990-2000

By Larson, Bruce A. | Political Research Quarterly, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Incumbent Contributions to the Congressional Campaign Committees, 1990-2000


Larson, Bruce A., Political Research Quarterly


House incumbents now regularly transfer significant sums of campaign money from their reelection accounts to the party campaign committees. This article conducts the first comprehensive exploration of this activity. After briefly reviewing the federal regulations that govern member contributions to the campaign committees, I present data for the 1989-1990 through 1999-2000 election cycles that illustrate the steep rise in these contributions. I then test several hypotheses about members' willingness to support their parties financially in light of the electoral conflict between incumbents and parties described by Jacobson (1985-1986). I find that a members leadership status in the House and ability to raise "surplus" campaign dollars are the two most consistent determinants of his or her financial support for the party campaign committees.

The individual reelection interests of House incumbents have been known to clash with the collective electoral interests of the congressional parties. Analyzing the 1982 elections, Jacobson (1985-1986) observed that Democratic incumbents hoarded their excess campaign funds and ignored the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committees (DCCC) appeals to assist the party's strapped challengers-preventing the party from capitalizing on favorable national partisan trends. Since then, much has changed. In the early 1990s, both House congressional campaign committees developed programs to encourage financial support from incumbents (Kenworthy 1991; Babson and Donovan 1994; Gimpel 1996). The programs have been quite successful. During the 1999-2000 cycle, for example, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) collected nearly $15 million in hard dollars from House GOP incumbents, and House Democrats contributed more than $11 million to the DCCC.

Although a few scholars have briefly called attention to incumbent financial support for the party campaign committees (Bibby 1999; Herrnson 1997; Sorauf 1992), this paper conducts the first comprehensive exploration of this activity. After briefly reviewing the federal regulations that govern member contributions to the campaign committees, 1 present data for the 1989-1990 through 1999-2000 election cycles that illustrate the steep rise in these contributions. I then test several hypotheses about the determinants of incumbent contributions to the parties in light of the tensions described by Jacobson (1985-1986).

MEMBER CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE CONGRESSIONAL CAMPAIGN COMMITTEES: REGULATIONS AND DATA

House members have several ways of making campaign contributions to the congressional campaign committees. First, members may transfer funds to the campaign committees through their reelection accounts. Second, members may distribute campaign support to the party committees through a "leadership" PAC. Finally, like any legal U.S. resident, members may make contributions to the parties from their own personal funds. This study limits itself to contributions from members' reelection committees and leadership PACs.

In contrast to regulations governing member contributions to other candidates (Wilcox 1989), federal campaign finance regulations allow members to contribute more to the parties through a reelection account than through a leadership PAC. As with all PACs participating in federal elections, leadership PACs may legally contribute $15,000 per calendar year to any national party committee. In contrast, Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulations permit a federal candidate's reelection committee to transfer unlimited amounts of unobligated hard money to any national party committee (11 CFR 113.2). In the most recent election cycles, numerous House incumbents have taken advantage of this rule and transferred six-figure sums to the congressional campaign committees.

As Table 1 shows, incumbent contributions to the congressional campaign committees have increased markedly during the past four election cycles. …

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