07/29/2011 11:19 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2011

Debt Limit Stalemate Has Roots In Campaign Money, Earmarks, Social Media

WASHINGTON -- The House Republican leadership is having a tough time twisting arms to get to 216 votes on the debt limit plan proposed by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Yesterday the GOP leaders had to pull their bill from the floor and have indefinitely postponed a vote. The leadership has had one major tool at their disposal when twisting arms, but will it be enough?

For a long time, congressional leadership has been organized and propelled by one thing: fundraising.

Tom Ferguson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, wrote in the Financial Times on Wednesday, "[A] tidal wave of cash has structurally transformed Congress, sweeping away the old seniority system that governed leadership selection and committee assignments. In its place, the major political parties borrowed a practice from big box retailers like Walmart, Best Buy or Target."

In the early 1970s, newly elected congressional Democrats sought to upend the seniority system by providing levers for party members to vote out committee chairs and give more power to subcommittee chairs. Instead of the longest-serving members receiving plum positions automatically, leadership and their supporters would decide who occupied those roles. Without the seniority system, leadership needed a new way to determine who could obtain powerful committee seats. The new way to control these positions is fundraising.

This system came into full view when the Republicans won control of Congress in the 1994 elections and instituted further reforms of the seniority system. A number of non-senior members with good fundraising records were promoted over those next in line. Robert Livingston, fifth in seniority on the Appropriations Committee, was given the chairmanship after he contributed $140,000 to fellow members in the election.

Now both parties set fundraising targets for leadership positions and committee chairs. After the 2008 election, House Democrats set specific amounts that top members had to raise or contribute for their colleagues facing tough contests. Regular committee chairmen were expected to raise $500,000, major committee chairs (Energy and Commerce, Appropriations, Ways and Means) had to raise $1.5 million, leadership rates ranged from $3.3 million for the Majority Leader and Majority Whip to $25 million for then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

In 2010, the top three members of the House GOP leadership, Boehner, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), combined to contribute more than $9.5 million to candidates seeking election.

As Ferguson writes, "In the new system, representatives dole out contributions to their colleagues, to influence votes, as they bid for key positions within each chamber but they also must raise vast sums for national party committees, which the congressional leadership controls."

Leadership wants order and centralization and so do the big business interests that write the checks that lawmakers need to rise in the party. That explains why business trade groups and the Karl Rove-linked outside groups endorsed the Boehner plan.

"Big money-givers still want some kind of centralization," Julian Zelizer, Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University, explained to The Huffington Post, "They're not just randomly throwing money out there. Karl Rove would rather have a disciplined Republican Party."

That still doesn't seem like enough at this point to force straying representatives back into line, and there are a number of factors contributing to leadership's weak hand.

The first, and most obvious, is the ban on earmarks instituted by the House Republicans earlier this year. After years of scandals and public disapproval of earmarks, the House Republican caucus banned the practice of members directing spending to specific purposes and companies in their districts. This was a position favored by the Tea Party and the party's more conservative members, but has brought unintended consequences for leadership.

"The old tools aren't going to work with these freshmen," said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for transparency in government. "They got rid of earmarks, so you can't threaten them there. The levers of power aren't quite as easy to push as they used to be."

Ardent earmark foe Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a "no" vote on the Boehner plan as of Thursday night, stated after talks with the Speaker last night that corralling the votes to pass this in the past would have cost around $20 billion in earmarks. Flake continued to state that the lack of earmarks "has to be the most refreshing thing in the world."

Another element at work here is the changing nature of the media. In the 1980s and 1990s, congressional leadership learned to use the newly developing 24-hour news cycle and cable television by centralizing their message and distributing talking points. The Internet is changing all of that.

"The media is becoming so much more fragmented," according to Zelizer, "It's so much easier for members to reach their constituents through Twitter and blogs, and it's harder for leadership to control."

More and more congressmen are using social media sites, according to a new study from the Congressional Management Foundation. That study showed that 72 percent of senior congressional staff believe that social media helps them reach constituents with whom had not previously communicated.

A study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project revealed that people with strong views either in support of or opposed to the Tea Party were far more likely to use social media for political activity, and Tea Party supporters were the most likely subset of people friending and commenting to politicians and political figures over social media.

In the end though, it may still come back to money. While big money still wants centralized leadership control and stability, small-dollar donors who give less than $200 don't.

In a recent online forum on campaign finance reform hosted by the Boston Review, Adam Bonica, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and blogger at Ideological Cartography, explained his findings that small-dollar donors are generally more partisan and concentrate their support on the most ideologically polarizing candidates.

"The most successful small-money fund-raisers mix media exposure with partisan taunting and ideological appeals," Bonica writes, "Fund-raising superstars Alan Grayson and Michele Bachmann have demonstrated this. During the 2010 election cycle, small donors (those who contribute $200 or less) gave $3.4 million to Grayson and a record-shattering $7.5 million to Bachmann."

It's no surprise, then, that Bachmann is firmly against the Boehner plan, which is reviled by the most conservative activists. The Minnesota congresswoman is already using her opposition to the plan to raise funds for her presidential bid.

After the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, more ideological groups are able to raise more and spend more in elections than ever before. Some of these groups, like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, have played a pivotal role in whipping up opposition to the Boehner plan. They also helped many freshmen congressmen get elected and continue to endorse the most rigid ideologues.

"When you look at all the outside money, in some ways they're not as beholden to leadership as they were in the past," Allison said. "For a lot of these freshmen that's what gave them the leg up. Whereas the NRCC is looking for people who can work in majority, FreedomWorks is looking for someone with a particular ideological bent."

Already the Club for Growth has directed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Flake's Senate campaign and just this week endorsed Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), a Tea Party lawmaker whose assertion that hitting the debt ceiling won't negatively affect the country has made him a favorite of TV news programs.

With new sources of fundraising based on ideological adherence, congressional leadership may be losing the last hammer for nailing down votes.