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  • Go back to Tracker -- Winter 1999

    Lining freshman pockets
    By Justin Pritchard
    Legi-slate News Service

    Once Congress left town last October, I salvaged a long-neglected file from the sea of paper on my desk and within it the makings of an unusually detailed piece on the impact of campaign money ­ though not the story I originally intended.

    I knew that some 20 Wall Street executives had held a January 1998 event for two friendly members of Congress who were pushing a massive reform of the nation's financial services sector. I wanted to see to what extent the House Republican steward of this legislation, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, was collecting campaign cash dividends for his effort. What was shaping up to be a standard story about special-interest giving changed completely, however, when poor election results compelled House Republicans to shake up their party leadership, beginning with Newt Gingrich.

    The resulting pair of stories ­ which are still available at www.legislate.com ­ offered a fresh and instructive look at how congressional leaders bless the rank and file with money from their own political action committees in the hope of securing their personal loyalty later in the political season. Leadership PACs have been around for years, but aside from reports on how leaders raised money from special interests, little has been reported on the nuances of the leaders' own giving.

    What's more, we used computer records to help put the main story together without having to rely on hard-to-use software or monstrous databases, two things that often discourage computer-assisted reporting. We managed to build a modest database of our own using Microsoft Excel but also relied heavily on basic interviewing and reporter skills to pin down the story.

    Why do the Story?
    At the time of the November GOP leadership elections, the Capitol Hill press was focused on Gingrich's heir apparent, Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana. The stories discussed which interest groups gave to his PAC and even, to an extent, how he used the PAC to speed his ascent. But Livingston was politically secure (until Larry Flynt arrived); my editor Rick Sia suggested that we take a closer look at incumbent GOP leaders who, like Gingrich, might become scapegoats for the party's disappointing election results.

    Challengers were emerging against both Boehner, then the No. 4 House Republican, and Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. We wondered how they would play in their efforts to retain power. So we set out to examine Boehner and Armey's lucrative leadership PACs. Because both had fairly well known loyalists on Capitol Hill, we decided to focus on how these two leaders were seeking to win over what would prove to be a crucial voting bloc: the 17 newly elected Republican freshmen.

    The nine interviews I did with incoming freshmen made up the core of the stories. I supplemented their remarks with Federal Election Commission figures, which made the stories truly computer-assisted, rather than computer-driven. Using both sources, I showed how Armey was able to "strengthen his hold on power by making sizable ­ and well-timed ­ investments in the next generation of party lawmakers."

    Indeed, all 10 of the incoming lawmakers who accepted PAC money and would discuss their vote on the secret ballot supported Armey. Even better, Armey really hustled to make an impression. Perusing the dates that Armey sent the checks, I saw no discernable pattern. Then I wondered how closely he sent them to the primaries in various states and discovered that, in many cases, he was the first lawmaker to send a check, often within days of the candidate's victory. Looking through a macro lens at thousands of records, I doubt I would have seen that detail, key though it was, and certainly not with any sort of timeliness. A manageable database became an asset in my search for a pattern, a trend, an angle for a news story.

    Armey staved off three challengers and won on the third ballot. Boehner, on the other hand, did not tap as deeply into that sense of loyalty. He lost to J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, perhaps because he gave less money in, one could argue, less strategic ways or perhaps simply because once Armey won re-election on a third ballot, Boehner was the only one left to fall.

    The guiding principle: not going for "gotcha." I accept the proposition that readers benefit more from explanatory pieces on the machinations of the money-in-politics system ­ using strong anecdotal evidence and, if they exist, galling examples ­ than the more stereotypic "gotcha" exposé. To be sure, the hand-in-the-cookie-jar story is fun to report and worth writing. But it can feel scripted: fill in the politician, the interest group and the implied quid pro quo, but the punch line is the same. Indeed, that is where the original story (the never-written piece about financial services legislation) was headed.

    The story my editor and I chose to pursue required a different mindset. The goal going in was not to slam anyone. We wanted to pull back the curtain to see how the process was staged. In many ways, that attitude helped the reporting. Lawmakers who are instinctively suspicious of press inquiries seemed disarmed when I told them that I did not presume the PAC donations were scandalous and explained instead that my goal was to explain an often misunderstood system.

    In this case, the reporting was also made easier because I was talking to neophyte lawmakers, those more homespun than spin-doctor, who were as intrigued by the leadership election process as myself. It did not ring false, then, when I told them that their loyalty to Armey, who gave many $10,000, was not insidious or embarrassing; indeed, it was logical. In addition, the fact that I did not intend to skewer them helped many open up to explain their votes on a secret ballot that they were not obliged to discuss with a reporter.

    Down to Work
    The story required two parallel tracks. The Center for Responsive Politics, chief researcher Sheila Krumholz in particular, saved us a lot of time by filtering the FEC data to see how much each House Republican leadership PAC gave to the 17 candidates. It was an operation that I could have done using another Web resource like Tony Raymondıs excellent page ­ http://www.tray.com/FECInfo/index.html-ssi ­ but going to the CRP saved valuable time and I've found their results to be accurate and reliable.

    I also poked around the Web myself. A quick look at Boehnerıs Freedom Project PAC home page showed how aware he was that the PAC was a tool of influence. On one Web page ­ http://www.freedomproject.org/pacreport.html ­ he prominently claimed that his Freedom Project gave money to more of the borderline races than any other leadership PAC.

    Getting the interviews was a sloppier task. Some lawmakers, for some reason those from New York and Pennsylvania in particular, simply didn't want to talk. Those that did were running between organization meetings, victory parties, orientation on Capitol Hill and post-campaign vacations. One had to cancel a phone interview because Armey asked for an impromptu meeting ­ a good sign that I was on the right track. It didnıt hurt that LEGI-SLATE News reporters already had profiled all incoming freshmen, which helped expedite interview requests with many press secretaries.

    I had kibitzed with several lawmakers before the leadership balloting but not enough to get the story. So, after the Nov. 18 election, I contacted them again to flesh out their thoughts. The initial contact helped ease us into conversation. Those I only spoke with after the election were no less cordial. I spent five minutes on the phone talking with the mother of Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska mostly about her sonıs life change and then a solid half-hour on the phone with Terry himself.

    Looking back over my files, I'm amazed at how much reporting I did that never really made it into any story. But that is precisely the point: The string that began with a meeting at Merrill Lynchıs Manhattan headquarters unexpectedly led me far away from its origin to two solid pieces.

    Justin Pritchard is on a Pew Fellowship at Johns Hopkins University and is best reached at (202) 663-7769 or jpritchard@mail.jhuwash.jhu.edu