The 119 freshmen lawmakers came to Washington as the quintessential outsiders, but they've quickly adapted to the ways of the nation's capital. Many have bought DC houses, raised heavy money from special interests, set up political action committees, accepted free trips from outside groups and routinely used tax dollars to send mailings to constituents. And that signals they have long-term ambitions to be incumbents.
Two years ago, Ron Johnson managed to unseat a leader in the U.S. Senate by running as a political outsider who promised to bring a new perspective to Washington.
In a 2010 campaign ad, he portrayed himself as a contrast to the typical people representing Americans in Washington. "I'm not a politician, I'm an accountant and a manufacturer," Johnson said in the ad.
Today, the outsider is looking increasingly like a Washington insider. After his election in 2010, Johnson and his wife bought a house in Washington that is now valued at $994,970.
Johnson is just one of many freshmen members of the Senate and House who have been doing the things Washington insiders do: buying a house, receiving money from interest groups and the powerful in Washington, or building their own Political Action Committees to support their party.
Having campaigned so hard against the insider’s club, they’ve taken on the characteristics of its members.
In this class of 119 freshmen, six senators and four members of the House L by buying property. Some of the senators had lived in Washington before. For example, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) was elected in 2010 after serving in the House for 14 years. He and his wife bought a new home this session now valued at $1,616,350. Similarly, Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Sen. John Boozman (R-AK) all returned to Washington and bought new homes.
In the House, Rep. Scott Rigell owns the most expensive Washington home of his freshmen class colleagues, a row house now valued at $967,360. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) is not far behind, with a D.C. row house now valued at $837,700. Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN) bought a house that was assessed as $295,000 in 2011. Mario Diaz-Bilart (R-FL), whose brother served in congress before him, moved to Washington back in 2004. Today he serves as the VP of his condo co-op board, according to this 2011 financial disclosure form.
In addition, at least 78 of the first-term lawmakers have set up PACs that let them raise money to travel, donate and help other politicians, essentially banking political chits that can be cashed in in the future, a review by the Washington Guardian and Political MoneyLine found.
Kent Cooper, the former disclosure chief for the Federal Elections Commission who tracks financial disclosure reports and political donations on his nonpartisan Web site Political MoneyLine, said purchasing property in the D.C. area proves these elected officials are interested in putting down roots in Washington.
“While it may be an investment, it also may mean they want to have a close connection to people in Washington, D.C.,” Cooper said.
Besides actually owning property, there are several other ways for freshmen members of Congress to join the Washington insiders club.
The Washington Guardian reported earlier this month that the new lawmakers have embraced two of the congressional perks they once lampooned on the campaign trail: free travel to faraway destinations paid in full by special interests and franking, the privilege that lets them send mailings to constituents at taxpayer expense.
All members are expected to raise money for themselves and for their parties throughout the legislative session, and freshmen are no different.
Some freshmen join the team even before election day. California Republican Jeff Denham was the hand-picked successor to Rep. George Radanovich in California’s 19th Congressional District, even though he did not live in the district.
When Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) headed west to campaign for Denham, it was with the understanding that Denham would help elect him Speaker of the House. Denham also donated $100,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"He's demonstrating to the caucus that he's interested in being a team player," Ted Maness, chief of staff to Rep. Radanovich, told McClatchy newspapers about Denham. "He does realize that he has an obligation as an incoming member."
It paid off for Denham. He was elected handily in 2010 and has received the most donations from other members of Congress, $201,332 to date, according to data from the Federal Election Commission.
Members never stop raising money. During each legislative session, fundraisers support their continued campaigning for the following election. One new congressman from Idaho also used his funds to support his family. The campaign to re-elect Raul Labrador, the Republican representing Idaho’s first district, paid Labrador’s wife a $28,000 administrative salary, according to FEC reports.
In addition to their personal campaign committees, members are encouraged to start their ownleadership PACs to cover other political expenses as well as support their fellow members. So far, 78 freshmen have started their own PACs, raising millions of dollars more beyond their campaigns during the 2011-2012 cycle.
Raising money often includes taking funds from special interest groups inside and outside of Washington. An analysis of political donations reveals this class of freshmen has no qualms about taking money tied to an agenda.
During the 2011-2012 cycle, the 119 freshmen members of Congress received a total of $38,926,532 from special interest groups and political action committees through June. That includes lots of money from lobbyists, lawyers and people trying to build connections in the Washington area.
Interest groups often give specifically to members who sit on committees that regulate their industries. The five freshmen members of the House Financial Services Committee received more than a quarter million dollars from the finance and insurance industries during the first 18 months of the 2011-2012 session.
Rep. Steve Stivers, a Republican representing Ohio’s 15th district, is a former lobbyist for Bank One and has been a vocal opponent of regulations on the financial industry. During the first 18 months of the 2011-2012 cycle, Stivers received $881,159 from special interest groups. Of that, $361,074 came from groups representing the finance and insurance industry.
In 2011, Stivers sponsored three pieces of legislation that would roll back regulations on financial organizations. Of the three, one -- a proposal to eliminate the regulations on inter-affiliate swaps put in place by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform bill -- passed in the House. It is stalled in the Senate.
Of course, raising money from special interests is nothing new in Washington. According to Viveca Novak, Editorial and Communications Director at the Center for Responsive Politics, fundraising from special interests both from home districts and inside Washington is a routine part of the Capitol culture.
“It does create an uncomfortable dynamic for members of Congress that are supposed to be watchdogging what is going on in an industry, at the same time taking money from them so they can be re-elected,” Novac said.
And it’s not always the lobbyists who are pushing the donations. Novac said she has heard of many instances in which a lobbyist visited a representative – and received a request for a donation within minutes of leaving the lawmaker’s office.
“Members of Congress know these are rich sources of donations and campaign funds,” Novak said. “Groups in Washington expect to be asked.”
Leadership Political Action Committees are political groups that can be set up by members of Congress to raise donations for political activities outside of their re-election campaigns.
The Federal Election Commission is an independent federal agency in charge of enforcing the nation's election and campaign finance laws.