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Local politics

The Journal Gazette

New committees yield new donors

Sen. Joe Donnelly and Rep. Marlin Stutzman essentially traded many of their special-interest supporters when the federal lawmakers received new committee assignments this year.

The most recent campaign finance reports for Donnelly and Stutzman illustrate how special-interest money follows the congressional committees that shape legislation affecting those interests.

When Stutzman, R-3rd, was a member of the House Agriculture Committee in 2011-12, many of the political action committees that gave money to his re-election campaign represented farmers, and a large number of those were sugar producers trying to protect their federal subsidies.

When Donnelly was in the House and a member of its Financial Services Committee, his campaign was attracting PAC money from banks, credit unions, credit card companies and insurers.

Donnelly, a Democrat who represented Indiana’s 2nd District, won election to the Senate in November and serves on three of its committees, including the Agriculture Committee. His first-quarter campaign finance report lists contributions from 10 PACs for cane and beet sugar growers, plus a corn growers group (as well as Coca-Cola and Pepsico, which use corn syrup as a beverage sweetener).

After he won re-election last year, Stutzman was named to a single House committee: Financial Services. His first-quarter donors included PACs for American Express, Discover, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Mastercard, Morgan Stanley and other financial services.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, PACs do not give too broadly to Congress to ‘buy votes’ – but they do focus donations on members of relevant committees to ensure access to members,” IPFW political scientist Michael Wolf said in an email.

“This makes sense given that the heavy lifting on legislation and oversight is done at the committee level,” Wolf said.

The Donnelly and Stutzman campaigns had little to say about the donations.

“The organizations that contribute to Senator Donnelly can best answer why they support him,” Kelly Norton, finance director for Donnelly’s campaign, said in an email. “Senator Donnelly’s sole guidance in his efforts as senator from Indiana are the interests of Hoosier families and businesses.”

Matt Lloyd, chief of staff for Stutzman, said in a phone interview that he would leave “the punditocracy about where money comes from” to The Journal Gazette.

Stutzman, a LaGrange County corn and soybean farmer, did receive a contribution from a soybean PAC in the first quarter. He also got money from PACs for defense contractors Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, which have operations in Fort Wayne, and Zimmer, a Warsaw-based manufacturer of orthopedics devices.

The FEC report for Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., offers a diverse group of PAC contributors: banking, energy, airline pilots, telecommunications and defense companies, including Raytheon and BAE Systems, which has a Fort Wayne plant, and Johnson & Johnson, which owns DePuy Orthopaedics in Warsaw.

Coats is a member of Senate committees that are broad in their scope (Appropriations, Commerce) or don’t draft legislation (Intelligence, Joint Economic).

Donnelly, who also is on the Armed Services and Aging committees, also received PAC money representing broadcasters, health insurers, energy, retailers and a retirement fund.

The nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation and NPR reported last year that their analysis of campaign contributions to House members over an 18-year period showed that the Ways and Means, Financial Services, and Energy and Commerce committees “stand out as being particularly lucrative” for luring contributions to congressional campaigns.

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics says on its website, “Lawmakers who win seats on the lucrative banking, tax-writing, or commerce committees quite often enhance their campaign war chests from industries seeking to influence legislative outcomes.”

How do the committees of which Stutzman, Donnelly and Coats are members compare in PAC donations? The Center for Responsive Politics reports that members of the House Financial Services Committee (Stutzman) received more than $47 million for the 2012 election. Senate Appropriations (Coats) got $42 million, Senate Agriculture (Donnelly) and Senate Commerce (Coats) received roughly $39 million each, and Senate Armed Services (Donnelly) collected $35 million.

The product of PAC donations and the congressional access they obtain “is an eternal debate,” Wolf said.

While the money “likely provides persuasion … the interests behind PACs can also provide expert information as to the intricate consequences of proposed legislation that may escape a member of Congress who isn’t an expert on all areas of policy and even the policy experts on the committee staff,” he said.

Already running

Members of Congress have been described as being in perpetual campaign mode, and Donnelly’s latest report to the Federal Election Commission is a good example.

Donnelly does not stand for re-election until 2018, but his campaign spent more than $125,000 in the first three months of this year. The money has been spent on consulting, accounting, online advertising, travel, campaign staff salaries and event catering.

By comparison, the campaign for Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., spent about $39,000 in the first quarter. Coats next stands for re-election in 2016.

“In this political day and age, a smart campaign maintains its infrastructure in order to run an effective and successful campaign in the years ahead,” Norton said about Donnelly’s campaign.

Donnelly defeated Richard Mourdock in last year’s general election after Mourdock had beaten 36-year incumbent Richard Lugar in the Republican primary election. Various observers said one reason Lugar lost was because his campaign organization was out of practice, as Lugar had not faced an election challenger since 2000.

Auto loan OK

The campaign for Stutzman, who is up for re-election next year, spent $56,000 in the first quarter, much of it for consulting, travel, salaries and printing.

Stutzman’s campaign paid $3,800 in vehicle loan payments. It bought a $45,000 vehicle last year that Lloyd identified as a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV.

“The congressman uses it for transportation around the district,” Lloyd said.

“We use it for both campaign and official events. This way, we’re not charging the taxpayer for anything,” he said.

The House Ethics Manual states that a House member may lease or buy a motor vehicle with campaign funds and “use that vehicle on an unlimited basis for travel for both campaign and official House purposes.”

If the vehicle is used for personal purposes, the congressman must reimburse his campaign from personal funds.

Donnelly’s office said his campaign leased a vehicle from August 2011 through December 2012 for campaign-related travel.

Coats’ office said his campaign has neither owned nor leased a vehicle since he was elected in 2010.