Follow the money

They say that to make sense of American politics, you’ve got to follow the money. Lately, congressional Democrats have been discovering that the old saw has a flip side: In DC, once you get a little power, the money starts following you. Since the Democrats seized Congress in 2006, energy companies and other corporate environmental bugaboos - normally generous contributors to the GOP - have been frantically trying to buy themselves new friends on the Hill.

The biggest beneficiaries of the energy sector’s largess have been the Blue Dogs, a coalition of 47 centrist Democrats with a nasty habit of breaking ranks to side with Republicans on keystone environmental issues. Last year alone the Blue Dog PAC, which channels funds to coalition members and other moderates, received $96,000 from energy and oil companies. That’s more than double the amount it received in the 2006 election cycle - and donations will likely continue to flood in as we head towards the general election.

Individual Blue Dogs have gotten lucky too: Jim Matheson of Utah, John Barrow of Georgia, and GK Butterfield of North Carolina - all members of the House’s energy committee - have between them scooped a cool $200,000 in energy-sector contributions. And the energy lobby hadn’t just been buying up influential committee-members; they’ve also emptied their pockets for freshmen congressmen. Consider Zach Space of Ohio, for example, who’s so far netted $32,000 from the energy lobby - almost six times what he received in the entire 2006 cycle. Many other small-fry congressmen - Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, Tim Mahoney of Florida, and Jason Altmire and Chris Carney of Pennsylvania - have been similarly fortunate.

Of course, cash doesn’t come for free: The energy companies are hoping to bank karma ahead of coming floor votes. It’s a tactic that’s worked for them in the past: Centrists have already forced Democratic leaders to dilute environmental legislation on issues like renewable energy and auto-fuel efficiency standards. Now the energy sector - and their Blue Lapdogs - are eying long-awaited climate legislation, hoping to scale back emission cuts and pencil in big subsidies for the coal and nuclear industries.

In response, the Democratic leadership plans to hold over the legislation until after the November election, when it expects to win a heftier majority. The truth of the matter, though, is that if the Democrats expand their majority this November, it’ll largely be by fielding moderate candidates capable of winning red-state seats. As long as the energy sector keeps its wallet open, it’ll continue to have plenty of friends on the Hill.