WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – One of Washington’s dirty little secrets is that members of Congress earn $174,000 per year, but spend up to 30 hours a week buttering up rich donors.
Now, a group of congressmen wants to flip the money-first Capitol culture on its head.
“Look around the House floor in the middle of the afternoon. Very few people are there. Walk down the halls of one of the House office buildings. Very few members are in their offices,” gripes Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.).
Where are the missing members of Congress?
Jolly explains, “They’re across the street at party headquarters raising money,” showing a mix of frustration and disapproval.
Barred by law from fundraising on Capitol grounds, members from both parties trek across the street to sparsely-decorated corporate digs to dial through lists of potential donors who may be schmoozed into cracking open their pocketbooks and showering money on candidates.
Some members are pressured to bank at least $18,000 per day. Jolly calls it a “bipartisan shakedown.”
Banning campaign solicitations
Congressman Jolly, who’s now battling for the GOP nomination to replace Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in 2017, has sworn off the dialing-for-dollars operation that consumes so much of his colleagues’ time and wants other members to do the same.
A few months ago he introduced the Stop Act, which would ban federal office-holders from directly soliciting donations.
“We have to stand up and say enough is enough,” Jolly urges. “Let’s get back to legislating and leave fundraising to the campaign committees.”
It is, admittedly, a modest start.
Members would still be allowed to attend fundraisers and discuss elections with potential donors, potentially pushing some money-raising efforts off the books.
Jolly says he’d like to go bigger than the regulations in Stop, but it’s starting small to accomplish larger goal.
Congressional money matters
The House of Representatives has 435 members and the Senate is made up of 100 members. And their seats don’t come cheap.
House members require an average of $1.6 million to win reelection every two years, according to the campaign finance advocacy group Issue One.
Senate seats, which last for six years, cost an average of $10.4 million.
Compare those figures to 30 years ago when House elections averaged $360,000 and Senate seats were $3.1 million.
Fundraising prowess pays off
Prolific fundraising is a source of pride and power in Congress.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has stayed atop the Democratic power structure for decades due, in large part, to her ability to rake in mountains of campaign cash. Pelosi represents a safe Northern California district, so much of that money is then redistributed to more vulnerable Dems.
When current House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) accepted his new perch, it was on the condition that he be exempted from fundraising on the weekends like his tireless predecessor John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Members who raise money for their colleagues’ races, like Pelosi and Boehner, quickly move up the party leadership ladder, earning important titles and significant influence.
But at what cost?
After winning an open House seat in a 2014 special election, Jolly ran headlong into the fundraising expectations of Republican House leaders.
“I’d been in office just a few months when a member of my leadership sat me down to explain how much I needed to raise every single day prior to my election, and it was $18,000.”
It was then that the freshman Republican congressman realized that he would be expected, on top of constituent and committee work, to spend 20 to 30 hours per week acting as a glorified telemarketer.
“It’s one of the few things both sides agree on,” shares Jolly. “They agree that their No. 1 priority is raising money.”
Former congressmen speak out
Members of congress are “not sitting in that committee hearing trying to figure out how to balance the budget or climate change,” notes former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), “They’re downtown raising money or at a fundraiser.”
Roemer, who also served as the U.S. ambassador to India, now works with the campaign finance reform organization Issue One.
More than 130 former officials called the “ReFormers Caucus,” including former Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), have signed on to work with Issue One.
“Money is crippling our Congress, is dominating the time of our legislators, and leaders are being turned into fundraisers,” warned Roemer, who served in the House from 1991-2003.
He and other members who have left office know the grind of working the phones and begging for campaign money.
When asked if money has crept too far into politics, Roemer balks, saying pressure to raise money has been a “tsunami” hitting national politics.
Game change in 2016
The 2016 election cycle has brought unparalleled attention to the traditionally un-sexy issue of campaign finance reform.
HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” skewered America’s fundraising system. CBS ran an in-depth piece on “60 Minutes” on Sunday.
“We see this groundswell and this wave taking place. Now we have to work with Congress,” suggests Roemer.
The groundswell began with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010 and seems to be nearing an apex, with presidential candidates on the right and left talking about the questionable role of money in electoral politics.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump openly talks of buying access to top politicians in the past, saying loose laws should be tightened. On the left, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has made a top-to-bottom campaign finance overhaul proposal his 2016 centerpiece.
Advocates with Issue One believe state-based and judicial solutions hold promise, but argue the place to start is with the elected officials who legally control, and depend on, campaign donations.
“A year ago, I would’ve thought we wouldn’t have much chance to get this done,” admits Roemer, “but right now we have a Congress that is increasingly attentive, with some bipartisan bills.”
Jolly’s Stop Act has a humble six cosponsors as of this writing, but he hopes that number will spike as constituents apply more pressure.
He insists that he will not ask directly ask for donations during his Senate bid, but will continue attending fundraisers. To do otherwise would be economic – and electoral – suicide.
Unless and until federal campaign finance laws get a makeover, Jolly closes with the following message to his congressional colleagues: “Put down the phone. Stop raising money. And do the job you ran to do.”
Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales