U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, is presented a cake in February the day before his birthday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel’s Heritage Celebration in Atlanta. Lewis’ birthday has been used as a reason for a fundraiser in years when his age is divisible by five. In 2015, a fundraising celebration was held at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, with Jennifer Holliday and Regina Belle as the entertainment. Lewis’ campaign spent roughly $75,000 on the venue, staffing and staging; close to $30,000 on catering; and an additional $50,000 it paid to the producer for developing the gala’s “overall artistic vision.” The event raised roughly $250,000. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

Georgia congressmen spent millions while cruising to re-election

There were also tickets to the Masters golf tournament and a hotel room in the Virgin Islands, not to mention a stable of high-level campaign and social media consultants.

Georgia’s U.S. House members faced only token opposition at the ballot box last year, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by the way they spent campaign money.

The state’s 13 incumbent representatives collectively spent more than $12.9 million in the two years leading up to last year’s election, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of federal campaign finance records. All of them cruised to re-election by at least 20 percentage points in November, some without any major-party opposition in the general election.

Since then, many of those lawmakers have kept their spending apace, even with their re-election bids more than a year away.

The granular details reported in public filings paint a vivid picture of Washington’s permanent campaign culture — the nonstop mixers, strategy sessions and message rollouts that keep D.C. churning.

It is a culture often criticized by many on the political left and right, including President Donald Trump, who promised on the campaign trail last year to “drain the swamp” in Washington. And it feeds into public fear that the monetary arms race is corroding the quality of political decision-making, taking away from the time lawmakers need to solve the most pressing issues of the day, from improving the health care and tax systems to fixing the nation’s aging infrastructure.

Georgia’s representatives appear to spend most of their campaign money with the express goal of helping them raise more money.

Read more: Before Cabinet ascent, Price was Georgia’s biggest campaign spender

And they’re not alone. Across both parties, countless colleagues from nearly every state spent the lion’s share of the money they raised on the services of Washington’s political professionals: fundraising consultants, campaign finance lawyers and media outreach gurus who exist to keep them abreast of the law and get them re-elected.

“It’s a constant money chase,” said Sara Henderson, the executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia. “They’re always in campaign mode because they have to be.”

Many lawmakers say the spending is mandatory in order to keep up in today’s cutthroat campaign landscape, where outside super PACs can drown your race with unlimited money and ultrawealthy opponents are becoming more common. Ensuring their campaign coffers are full, several said, is not only expected to pay for their party’s high annual dues but necessary to scare off the would-be challengers eyeing their seats.

“When you’re looking at opposition, one of the first things that they do is they go look and see what a candidate has in his war chest,” said U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, who is in his second term.

Critics warn the system is out of control, particularly since gerrymandering, perks of the job and easy money have made a vast majority of House members a virtual shoo-in for re-election.

The rules

Democratic U.S. Rep. David Scott, who has served in Congress since 2003, ran unopposed last year in Georgia’s 13th District, which hugs Atlanta’s southwest corner. But he spent more than $938,000 in 2015 and 2016 on his re-election, including roughly $20,000 on catering for fundraising events at a tony D.C. seafood restaurant known for its oysters and $26 crab cakes.

U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, a member of Congress since 2010, preferred pasta. The Ranger Republican held events with donors at the famous Georgetown eatery Filomena and Trattoria Alberto, the cozy Capitol Hill restaurant known as former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner’s favorite watering hole. Graves spent more than $777,000 on his way to re-election. After facing two little-known primary challengers, he did not face any opponents in November.

Ask about that kind of spending on Capitol Hill and most don’t bat an eyelash. It is not illegal. It’s often encouraged by party leaders eager to hit ever higher donation goals.

House ethics rules are relatively strict about how lawmakers can use their taxpayer-funded office budgets. But the standards are much more lax when it comes to representatives’ campaign coffers, which are separate and privately funded. The rules allow lawmakers to spend the money on “bona fide campaign or political purposes,” a fairly broad definition, as long as they aren’t for “personal” or official use as a member of Congress.

Often, the decision of what’s acceptable and what crosses the line is left up to the lawmaker himself to decide.

That perhaps helps explain the multiple trips to the Porsche Experience Center in south Atlanta that functioned as a backdrop for U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall’s, R-Lawrenceville, campaign fundraisers. The facility allows guests to test-drive one of more than 75 models of the iconic German sports car brand, an experience that will “send the heart racing,” its website boasts.

Source: Federal Election Commission. * indicates the candidate was uncontested in the general election. (Graphic by Saurabh Datar/AJC)

Other Georgia lawmakers appeared to prefer watching sports rather than participating in them.

Albany Democratic U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, who has been in Congress for 24 years, spent more than $4,600 for a pro-football fundraiser in January, and the campaign of Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, who is serving his second term representing the 12th District, which includes Augusta, shelled out $3,000 for Masters tickets in 2015 and 2016.

The largest expense for many lawmakers, however, was to campaign consultants. For some Georgia representatives it was not unusual to see one-quarter or one-third of their expenditures going to image-makers, fundraising experts and attorneys to make sure their campaigns were complying with the law.

The culture proliferates even as public approval of Congress remains at a rock-bottom 20 percent and frustration mounts with lawmakers unable or unwilling to forge agreements on the most pressing political issues of the day. Some former representatives have spoken out about the hours they were pressed to spend raising money instead of legislating.

Destination events

Another common practice on Capitol Hill is what has become known as destination fundraisers, where lawmakers invite a small group of donors to join them at exotic locations in the hopes they’ll cut checks.

Tifton Republican U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, who has served in Congress since 2011, holds an annual fishing trip at the Inn at Perry Cabin, a stately colonial-style manor on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay that was used as the backdrop for the 2005 comedy “Wedding Crashers.” Rooms at the inn go for about $370 a night, and the hotel also offers expeditions on a “fully-equipped, custom-made” charter boat. Scott reported spending more than $20,000 to rent space there in 2015 and 2016.

Others spend the money on noncampaign “destinations.”

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson’s campaign spent $1,000 for a stay at the Buccaneer Hotel on the Caribbean island of St. Croix in February 2016, a resort that bills itself as blending “old world charm with warm hospitality” and includes an 18-hole golf course, eight tennis courts and a water sports center.

A spokesman for Johnson said the Lithonia Democrat’s campaign paid for his stay in the Virgin Islands as part of a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation policy conference.

“As a member of the board of directors for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Congressman Johnson regularly attends CBC Foundation, Institute and campaign functions to advance the CBC mission,” said Andy Phelan, Johnson’s campaign spokesman.

Scott won re-election last year in his south-central congressional district with more than 67 percent of the vote, and Johnson, who has served in Congress for a decade, defeated a virtually unknown Republican opponent by a margin of more than 51 percentage points.

Then there’s U.S. Rep. John Lewis. The Atlanta Democrat and civil rights hero, who was first elected to Congress when Ronald Reagan was president, held a star-studded 75th-birthday gala at the Tabernacle in March 2015 that included performances by Jennifer Holliday and Regina Belle, as well as appearances by former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young and ex-Gov. Roy Barnes.

The gala, organized by Lewis’ campaign, was open to the public, with more than 1,500 attendees paying $25 to $5,000 for tickets

Public filings show Lewis’ campaign spent roughly $75,000 on the venue, staffing and staging, as well as close to $30,000 on catering and an additional $50,000 on the services of event producer Kenneth Green, who on LinkedIn said he developed the gala’s “overall artistic vision.”

Tharon Johnson, one of the organizers of the birthday event and Lewis’ former campaign manager, said the campaign has thrown the lawmaker birthday parties every five years since his 60th in 2000.

“These events,” Johnson said, “have provided invaluable opportunities to both celebrate Lewis’ long life of service and raise money to help implement the congressman’s vision for America.” He said the 75th-birthday gala helped Lewis’ campaign raise roughly $250,000.

“We agree that it is our responsibility to ensure campaign funds are spent in a manner which conforms to all legal and ethical requirements, and our team has taken every step to ensure that is the case with every expenditure,” Johnson said.

Criticism and demands

Ask local campaign finance watchdogs about the spending and they pull no punches.

William Perry, the head of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, said the fundraising events, especially the ones held in exotic or fancy locations, do fairly little to help lawmakers’ campaigns.

“It’s helping them lead what I call the legislative lifestyle,” he said. “A luxury trip to the Virgin Islands, a 75th-birthday party at a major venue in your district … doesn’t benefit your campaign. It only benefits you as a person.”

Many Georgia lawmakers, however, said the vigorous fundraising and spending are necessary.

While opponents are back home in the district building up support networks, oftentimes the members of Congress are stuck in D.C. doing their jobs, which can make campaigning difficult, Loudermilk said.

“A lot of guys keep consultants on staff to help with their messaging because they’re scrambling, especially in campaign season, to get out of (Washington) and get their job done to get back in the district to campaign,” he said.

Despite Loudermilk’s complaints, members of Congress have substantial built-in advantages.

Their committee assignments give them industry constituencies that are often eager to donate to their campaigns. Party officials often help them with fundraising pleas, and as elected lawmakers on Capitol Hill they can get their name out through so-called franking privileges, which allow them to send noncampaign-related mail to their constituents about their policy positions on taxpayers’ dime.

Because of all the money and congressional districts that are drawn by state lawmakers in such a way that they are all but certain to protect the incumbent and his party, any opponent is a long shot, particularly those from the opposing party. Ninety-seven percent of House members won re-election in 2016, according to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Georgia’s senators — who serve six-year terms — also raised and spent a boatload of money over the past two years.

GOP U.S. Sen. David Perdue spent more than $1 million during the 2016 cycle, even though he won’t have to run for re-election until 2020.

Senate races are generally much more expensive affairs than House campaigns, as evidenced by Perdue’s colleague Johnny Isakson.

The Republican spent more than $9.9 million in 2015 and 2016 to secure his third term in the Senate last year. He ran against two long-shot primary challengers and a wealthy but little-known Democrat whom he trounced in the general election. So far in 2017, Isakson has spent more than $178,000, mostly on fundraising and credit-card payments for a seat that isn’t up for another vote until 2022.

Some lawmakers interviewed said the nonstop fundraising is often sanctioned by their party leaders, who enact stiff moneymaking quotas for annual party dues — particularly for more senior members in leadership roles — and encourage members to financially aid their colleagues in tight re-election battles.

“You’re constantly, constantly under pressure from a variety of sources to raise money,” David Scott said. “I hate that we have to spend 30 to 40 percent of our time up here raising money.”

Scott sent $35,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee over the past two years. Even bigger donors were Lewis and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, members of their respective parties’ leadership teams. Lewis donated $270,000 in 2015 and 2016, while Collins raised nearly $200,000 for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Common Cause’s Henderson said the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which opened the floodgates for outside spending in elections, has raised the stakes.

She said she expects demands for fundraising will only grow until there’s a sustained grass-roots effort that compels political leaders to change. Henderson worried it could take another lobbying scandal to the level of the Jack Abramoff affair in 2005 to change the culture. Abramoff was the key figure in a major corruption investigation that led to his conviction and to 21 people either pleading guilty or being found guilty.

“We’ve just become numb to it and it’s very, very unfortunate,” she said. “You don’t have anybody telling you no. You don’t have a lot of oversight. It’s kind of just another day in D.C.”

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