Black lawmakers win battle over party dues

Black Democrats led by Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) have won a major and long-sought victory over party dues by convincing their leaders to switch to a participation-based system for judging which lawmakers are pulling their weight.

For the 2010 cycle, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) Member Participation Program will recognize members as paying their dues if they engage in political activities, such as hosting an event for a vulnerable or freshman Democrat, according to a memo obtained by The Hill.

Under the new “member participation point system,” lawmakers will not face strict rules on raising and donating money for their party.

Democrats from poorer districts have complained for years that it’s far harder for them to raise money than it is for members from wealthier parts of the country, and they said it would be even tougher amid a recession. Five districts represented by black lawmakers are among the 10 districts with the lowest median household income, according to the Alexandria-based firm Proximity, which analyzed U.S. census data.

“Members will now be recognized on the caucus report for hosting an event, DCCC requested travel and participation in a messaging event in D.C. or in the district on behalf of our Frontline members or Red to Blue candidates,” the DCCC has decided, according to a memo sent last week to House Democratic leaders.

The Frontline program benefits the most vulnerable Democrats, while Red to Blue candidates are typically Democrats running for open seats or against GOP incumbents. Frontline members typically do not have to meet the dues limits.

The move is a significant departure from the recent past — when DCCC dues and donations alone were the primary way leaders weighed who in the caucus was pulling his or her weight — and a significant victory for Clyburn, who has been pushing for the change for some time.

“We made a lot of noise within the Congressional Black Caucus [CBC] for years about this disparity and unequal treatment,” said Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). “I’m encouraged by the adoption of these new rules and that our leaders have finally decided to listen to those members who really are team players but who are at such a fundraising disadvantage.”

While the change was a victory for the CBC, it is also a sign of the significant fundraising problems congressional Democrats now face. The DCCC memo braced top Democrats for the “staggering” cost of an election cycle that will pose an “extraordinary challenge.”

“We enter this cycle with potentially 50 threatened incumbents,” the memo read. “The financial cost of mounting this defense will be staggering. We must begin work immediately by retiring the DCCC’s still-sizable debt and helping our Frontline members show early strength. Putting the appropriate dues structure in place will be critical to our success.”

The DCCC this week reported that $16 million in debt will be carried over from the 2008 election cycle. The DCCC spent over $75 million in the last cycle.

Beyond the debt, top Democrats said they face the serious challenge of a fatigued donor network and an economy in turmoil.

The debt, paired with the need to pour money into 2010 defense efforts, led many top Democrats to believe that the DCCC would raise member dues beyond last cycle’s levels.

But the DCCC opted to leave the 2007-2008 dues structure in place — except for the inclusion of the participation point-based system.

Under this system, rank-and-file members are asked to contribute $125,000 to the DCCC, while other members face higher dues based on their caucus positions. Dues for “non-exclusive subcommittee chairs” up to Speaker range from $150,000 to $800,000.

The decision not to raise dues was made after much debate. Democrats ultimately decided the combination of a tapped-out donor network and a recession demanded “realistic goals” for the caucus, an aide familiar with the decision said.

So instead of drawing in larger pools of money, the DCCC is placing an even greater emphasis on paying dues early.

“Member dues constitute 1/3 of the budget, with grassroots support, major donors and PACs [political action committees] comprising the rest,” DCCC leaders reminded the caucus in the memo.

“We must begin the work of replenishing our financial resources for the long fight ahead. Our success over the past two election cycles in winning 54 Republican-held seats has set the stage for an extraordinary challenge in the 2010 midterms.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Clyburn and DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) announced to the caucus on Tuesday that they had already each paid $250,000 of their $800,000 in dues in an effort to show leadership by example.

The task of collecting the rest of the member dues has fallen on the shoulders of third-term Rep. Albio Sires (N.J.), the DCCC’s vice chairman for member participation.
Sires acknowledged the exceptional difficultly of what is always a tall task.

“It’s a big challenge,” Sires said. “It’s going to be very difficult to raise money in this climate … People have to realize that we’re enjoying the majority because we could afford to pay for the message that so resonated with the American people.”