I agree with the conventional wisdom that congressmen spend entirely too much of their time raising money. Like many viewers, I cringed at John Oliver’s dialing-for-dollars exposé featuring former Democratic Congressional Committee chairman Steve Israel—who described how our nation’s legislators act like telemarketers, sitting in squalid cubicles not far from the Capitol to call strangers and read a scripted pitch for money.
Representative Israel (D-N.Y.) was great at raising money, but he leaves Congress next month. He’d rather spend his time writing a novel and doing things other than begging strangers for money.
A few weeks after Oliver’s segment aired, CBS’s 60 Minutes did its own piece on this topic. Its star was Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.), whom nobody would mistake for Steve Israel. Jolly is a conservative who opposes Obamacare and is anti-abortion. But like Israel, he hates being forced to raise money. He has introduced legislation to ban dialing-for-dollars.
But as unseemly as dialing-for-dollars is, it’s profoundly mistaken to imagine that reforming campaign finance would “fix” Congress, as a member of the Federal Elections Commission recently claimed. Writing in the Washington Post, Ellen Weintraub argued that ending call time would free legislators to develop relationships. She made the case that elections should be financed through small donations given only by individuals—not unions, corporations, or political action committees—and matched with tax dollars.
Channeling Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Weintraub asserts that “the concerns of the country’s wealthiest people absorb the time and attention of office-holders.” If contributions were limited to small amounts from individuals, she reasons, legislators would “descend upon the Capitol, ears burning with their constituents’ most urgent concerns, [and] they will find that what they’ve heard wasn’t that different from Florida to Idaho to Maine to Kansas. … From common concerns, common solutions can be pursued.”
Given that she spent time as a Capitol Hill staffer, Weintraub really should know better. Reality is far more complex than the populist caricature in which Congress is merely a tool of big special interests. Congress certainly is not deaf to the demands of the common man and woman. It is besieged every day with organized interests (big and small) and constituents who want something or feel like speaking their minds. Different groups win on different issues.
To avoid the appearance that they are out of touch or suffer the dreaded “Potomac Fever,” legislators have allocated more and more of their personal staff to work in district offices in their home states. Members of Congress also fly home to press the flesh and hold town halls and meet with constituents every week or so. Just about every member of Congress is on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, connecting to “we the people.”
The troubles Congress faces in being able to function stem largely from two big causes. First, its members, from both parties, operate on the assumption that their own party can win the chamber in the next election. Whichever party is in the minority will therefore try to make the majority look hapless. This historically anomalous situation has been going on for more than 20 years now. As the University of Maryland’s Frances Lee has documented, it provides incentives for obstruction and for partisan warfare more generally. Fiddling with campaign finance will not stop the chambers from flipping from Democratic to Republican and back again.
Second, Congress as an institution is not up to governing in the 21st century. Policy wonks and political scientists have demonstrated that Congress’s policymaking capacity has waned, while government has grown massively. There simply is no way Congress can competently oversee or even comprehend a $3.4 trillion executive branch with 180 agencies running thousands of programs. Ironically, Congress actually has reduced its own powers to govern by cutting support staff and lowering their pay. And why has it done this? To please the public, who mistakenly believe legislators are overstaffed and that folks on the Hill are getting rich.
So, go ahead and ban dialing-for-dollars. Congress might legislate more if its members have to spend less time on the phone. But do not imagine it will much change how Congress works. Fixing our national legislature will require far more profound changes to restore Congress as a potent policymaker that earns the public’s esteem.
Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at the R Street Institute and the editor of LegBranch.com.