Wisconsin's lawmakers raking in special-interest money above congressional average

Oct. 25, 2013
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Special interests give to Wisconsin House members

Some Wisconsin lawmakers are raking in special-interest contributions at a rate far above the congressional average. Here’s how they rank by percentage of contributions from political action committees in 2013.
• Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac: Total raised, $259,023; from PACs, 81.9 percent.
• Ron Kind, D-LaCrosse: Total raised, $806,887; from PACs,70.8 percent.
• Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee: Total raised, $398,772; from PACs, 68 percent.
• Mark Pocan, D-Madison: Total raised, $384,808; from PACs: 58.2 percent.
• Sean Duffy, R-Wausau: Total raised, $866,885; from PACs, 50.7 percent.
• Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood: Total raised: $725,729; from PACs: 45.5 percent.
• James Sensenbrenner, R- Menomonee Falls: Total raised: $111,954; from PACs, 41.5 percent.
• Paul Ryan, R-Janesville: Total raised, $2,906,566; from PACs, 20.7 percent.
• All U.S. House members: Total raised, $189,265,349; from PACs, 41.2 percent.


WASHINGTON — Some Wisconsin lawmakers on Capitol Hill are raking in special-interest contributions at a rate far above the congressional average.

Five of the state’s eight House members have collected more than half of their total campaign haul this election cycle from political action committees representing big business, labor and other interest groups.

For two, Republican Rep. Tom Petri of Fond du Lac and Democratic Rep. Ron Kind of LaCrosse, special-interest groups accounted for more than 70 percent of what they have raised, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

The congressional average so far this election cycle is 41 percent. Historically, the groups have accounted for only a third of the money raised in House elections dating back to 2000.


“Eighty percent, 70 percent is extraordinarily high,” said Viveca Novak of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions.

Democrats Gwen Moore of Milwaukee and Mark Pocan of Madison also raised sizeable percentages from interest groups, with Moore logging 68 percent and Pocan 58 percent.

Republican Reps. Reid Ribble of Sherwood and Sean Duffy of Wausau came in with 46 percent and 51 percent, respectively.

While a large proportion of contributions from individual donors can be indicative of broad, grassroots support, an oversized slice of PAC money can be indicative of political pull in Washington or simply reflect the extent to which a politician relies on special interests to fund re-election efforts.

Committee assignments that give lawmakers power over legislation or federal purse strings can automatically attract PAC contributions.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, for example, is chairman of the House Budget Committee and collected the most money overall from PACs — a total of $600,219 this year. Still, that represented only 21 percent of what he raised overall. The rest was from individual donors.

In some cases, the proportion of PAC money is related the effort involved. It’s often easier to raise money faster from PACs than individuals. PACs can give candidates up to $5,000 per election, while individuals can write checks for only half that much.

The demographics of a lawmaker’s district can also play a role. Poorer districts may not have enough people able to write big checks for campaign contributions, leaving a candidate relying more heavily on PACs.

That’s how Moore explained her high percentage of PAC money, noting that nearly one-third of Milwaukee residents are living in poverty. And she said the special interests that write checks to her campaign do not affect her legislating.

“Per my voting record, where my campaign funds originate is a non-factor when it comes to representing the collective voice of my constituents on the House floor,” Moore said in a statement.

A Ryan campaign spokeswoman did not address his PAC contributions but noted he enjoys a large percentage of individual contributions. “It’s encouraging to see so many support and encourage his leadership,” Finance Director and Campaign Manager Susan Jacobson said in a statement.

The other House members from Wisconsin declined to comment. Campaign finance reports for Wisconsin’s senators were not yet available from the FEC. The House reports were filed last week.

For the special-interest groups, cutting checks to lawmakers who agree with, fight for and protect their interests is par for the course in Washington. As is lobbying. Disclosure reports show the groups that gave the most to Wisconsin House members are also currently seeking to influence legislation in the House.

The top givers were financial and insurance companies. Northwestern Mutual, the Investment Co. Institute, the Credit Union National Association and Thrivent Financial for Lutherans all funneled a total of more than $20,000 each to Badger State representatives.

Thrivent is currently lobbying the House to retain its tax-exempt status, Northwestern Mutual is lobbying on insurance-product taxes, and the Investment Co. Institute is seeking to influence regulation of investment advice and money market mutual funds. The credit union association is lobbying on taxes and reducingregulation of its industry.

Also among the top givers to Wisconsin lawmakers was the committee of Honeywell International, an energy and manufacturing conglomerate and defense contractor. The company at the same time reported lobbying the House on energy, taxation and defense spending.

The National Beer Wholesalers Association, which cut checks totaling $23,500 to Wisconsin House members, reported lobbying the House at the same time on alcohol regulation and taxation, among other issues. The International Union of Operating Engineers gave $23,000 while lobbying House members on infrastructure investment and financing.

Oil and gas conglomerate Koch Industries gave $20,000 to Ribble and Duffy and is lobbying the House on fuel standards and climate change as well as energy production legislation.

Spokespeople for the PACs said they provide financial support to lawmakers who listen to, value and support policies that affect them.

“Decisions made by these lawmakers can have a major impact on our policy owners and our business,” Northwestern Mutual spokeswoman Jean Towell said.

Thrivent and the Credit Union National Association noted that their committee contributions are funded through member contributions. Thrivent has 350,000 members in Wisconsin, said spokesman Rick Kleven.

Koch industries and the International Union of Operating Engineers did not respond to messages left seeking comment.

Advocates seeking to rein in special-interest influence in Washington say an over-reliance on PAC contributions can skew lawmaking on Capitol Hill in favor of special interests rather than American citizens.

“Imagine if you’re a regular person and someone says, ‘Here’s $5,000. I don’t want anything for it,’" said Adam Smith of Public Campaign, a nonpartisan reform organization. “Nobody thinks these people are giving money out of the goodness of their heart.”

— Donovan Slack: dslack@usatoday.com; on Twitter @donovanslack

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