WASHINGTON -- House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn is a busy man this week, with a high-profile meeting of the deficit-reduction supercommittee and five Washington fundraisers crowding the South Carolinian's schedule.
Some folks worry about a connection between the panel's crucial work in seeking significant spending cuts and Clyburn's five receptions attended by donors and lobbyists, many determined to protect their vested programs from funding reductions. "Special interests across the board are interested in the work these 12 supercommittee members are doing," said Michael Beckel of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Clyburn's not alone
Clyburn's not alone in continuing to raise money as the supercommittee conducts its work. At least nine supercommittee members -- five Democrats and four Republicans -- have held or scheduled 21 fundraisers since getting named to the committee last month, said to the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based organization that tracks the influence of money in politics.
To be sure, no one's accusing members of any wrongdoing in their fundraising activities.
Fundraising has long been considered part of the job, and the Supreme Court in recent years has loosened limits on corporate political contributions, defending them as expressions of free speech protected by the Constitution's First Amendment. In Congress, legislative attempts to institute taxpayer financing of congressional elections have failed to gain traction. Opinion polls find most Americans oppose the idea anyway.
But critics say that by raising money while they're doing such high-profile work, supercommittee members are doing nothing to instill confidence in Congress, which already is facing record low public approval. The spotlight has been particularly intense on the supercommittee, which by design has much more clout than most congressional panels do. It could set spending levels for hundreds of federal projects extended over 10 years.
Clyburn scheduled nine known fundraisers between his Aug. 11 appointment to the special panel and its Nov. 23 deadline for finding a way to reduce the federal deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over a decade. A few days after his appointment, Clyburn told MSNBC in an interview that he would hold off for a bit on personal campaign fundraising.
"Quite frankly, all the fundraising I've got planned over the next few weeks is for somebody else, not for myself, and I don't plan to do anything for myself until later in the year," Clyburn said at the time.
Four weeks later -- this past Tuesday -- he scheduled a breakfast to raise money for his campaign committee.
This week alone, the four breakfasts and one dinner Clyburn was slated to preside over had ticket prices of as much as $5,000 apiece. Campaign-finance experts said the events could pull in a total of $1 million for his re-election committee, his Bridge leadership PAC and for wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.
In response to written questions, Clyburn said his full fundraising calendar doesn't reflect increased lobbyist interest in his work on the deficit-reduction panel.
Clyburn, the highest-ranking black member of Congress, said his goal on the supercommittee is to protect Americans who have lost their jobs or seen their wages drop during the recession and weak economic recovery. "Most of the people who have my ear are those who feel they don't have a voice and will never have the money to attend a fundraiser," Clyburn said.
Also Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the panel's co-chair, hosted a $1,000-a-ticket gala at the fall reception of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, raising money for the party's 2012 Senate candidates. Two Republican members of the debt-reduction panel held fundraisers the same night, giving lobbyists and influence peddlers an opportunity to mingle with them: U.S. Sen. Rob Portman hosted a reception for fellow Ohioan Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, and U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona hosted one for Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi.
Clyburn's nine fundraisers, however, are more than any of the committee's other 11 members will host in that period. They make up 43 percent of the 21 total fundraisers held by all lawmakers on the panel, according to the Sunlight Foundation.