Members of Congress spend an estimated 85% of their free time fundraising.
When Congressman Steve Israel decided not to seek re-election to Congress in 2016, he wanted to be clear about what drove his decision. In an op-ed printed in the New York Times, Rep. Israel describes the never-ending fundraising cycle that he endured while serving in the House of Representatives. By his calculation, he spent 4,200 hours making fundraising calls, attended more than 1,600 fundraisers, and raised nearly $20 million. And this isn’t a congressman that had been around since before anyone could remember – he served eight terms. He details sitting in cubicles with a team of fundraisers working collectively to get potential donors on the phone and how he constantly felt like he was “panhandling” in order to keep his job.
Anyone with experience working on political campaigns or for an elected official on Capitol Hill knows that there is nothing unusual about Congressman Israel’s experience. Former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth estimated that members spend 85% of their non-committee/official time devoted to fundraising. This has a corrosive effect on politics and the ability of our elected officials to do their jobs.
The primary responsibility of members of Congress is to legislate. This requires that members learn about the intricacies of policy, constantly stay abreast of national and international developments, consult with experts, and interface with colleagues to find out what they think and how the nation might move forward on an unending list of issues plaguing the nation. But when members have to spend nearly all their time raising money, they lose valuable time to be able to become good at what we elected them to do. We force them to become full-time fundraisers instead of policymakers. Lest anyone thinks that this is a choice members make, it’s helpful to know that in 2014, the biggest spender in each House race won 94% of the time and the biggest spenders won in the Senate 82% of the time. If you don’t raise the money, you don’t get re-elected.
Limiting a member’s exposure to other members, especially of the opposing political party, has led to decreased congeniality among elected officials and their ability to reach bipartisan compromise on nearly anything. It’s easier to disagree with someone you have limited interactions with and harder to see someone else’s point of view when you rarely hear it, and hardly ever debate it. The need to raise money has changed the interpersonal dynamics of the Hill.
What’s more, as former Congresswoman Connie Morella noted, fundraising pressure isn’t just internally driven by a single elected official’s campaign. Members of Congress are expected to raise money for the party and the party committee’s fundraising arms. If they fail to fulfill this duty, leadership can withhold campaign funding, committee assignments, or language that member wants included in legislation that gets introduced. There simply is no way around the fundraising mandate for any member that wants to get re-elected or have any sort of impact while they’re in office.
So what’s the solution? Impose term limits to end the endless cycle of fundraising? A constitutional amendment that provides meaningful campaign finance reform? The elimination of campaign finance limits so that members don’t have to raise enormous sums $2,700 at a time? These are among the ideas being thrown around by thought leaders, but none of them are being considered in any meaningful way. The amount of money being spent seems to increase every election cycle, and without significant reform and a serious national conversation about this problem, it’s unlikely that anything will change.