Dialing for Dollars
In a recent PowerPoint presentation, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee laid out the “Model Daily Schedule” for incoming freshmen members. The schedule recommends a nine-to-ten-hour day: one to two hours of constituent visit time, two hours of committee/floor votes, one hour of “Strategic Outreach” (“Breakfasts, Meet & Greets, Press”), one hour of “recharge time”—and four hours of “Call Time.” By “Call Time,” the DCCC means time spent on the phone soliciting donations. Think about that for a minute: It’s normal—indeed, recommended—that 40 percent of a member’s workday in Washington should be spent talking to potential donors.
The symposium “Everyone’s Fight: The New Plan to Defeat Big Money” [Issue #27] makes many excellent points about the corrosive effect of money in politics. But here’s another reason to tackle the issue: It takes up too much time.
There are a number of ways to think about this problem. The first is that it’s an outrage. We pay lawmakers $174,000 a year, about four times the average national salary. If we assume 40 percent of their working day goes to fundraising, we are effectively paying each member of Congress $70,000 a year to work the phones like a telemarketer. While candidates make many promises about what they plan to do in Washington, no member campaigns on this: “Elect me, and I’ll spend four hours of every workday calling wealthy donors to give me money.” It’s a promise just about every voter would reject. Yet it’s the one promise a candidate would be most likely to keep. (Of course, it’s fair to add that nobody knows whether members of Congress actually stick to this demanding call schedule, because few members make their daily schedules public.)
There is also the very real likelihood that the high costs of running are keeping plenty of good and able people out of public office. The current system means that we are selecting our candidates primarily based on the answer to this question: “Are you willing and able to spend hundreds of hours getting people to write you thousand-dollar checks?” It makes you wonder what kind of people want to sign up to run for office anymore. It sounds more like a telemarketing scam than a higher calling of public service.
Finally, there is a question of what this does to the political process. Instead of spending time in committee hearings learning about issues, or even socializing and getting to know each other, members of Congress are retreating into their private bunkers of begging, conducting repetitive conversations with only those individuals who can write their campaign a check. While there are surely many reasons for the increasing congressional incivility and policy ignorance, the unceasing demands of fundraising that isolate members of Congress from one another and prevent them from engaging in policy substance must be included among them.
Notice I’ve written nothing about the influence of money. Even if you want to hold the position that money does not determine outcomes (as some political science research, for example, does), the role it plays in our political system is still a substantial problem. Let’s put it simply: We are electing and then paying representatives to spend a substantial amount of their time calling potential donors so they can get re-elected again to then ask for more money. We are almost certainly driving good people out of public service, and keeping our representatives from getting to know both each other and the substance of the issues on which they are to decide. This sounds like a terrible system to me.
Senior Fellow, Sunlight Foundation
The Good Government Does
The progressive response to the current efforts to get rid of “entitlements” [“Progressives and the Safety Net,” Issue #27] must be focused on touting universal health-care coverage with excellent services for all Americans. Conservatives have spent billions of dollars to convince Americans that government is the problem. Progressives have not focused enough on what government does for its citizens.
How can this be done?
First, we need to reframe the conversation. Focus on what government does right and how to make it more effective in serving the needs of all our citizens. Expose “special interests” and the toxic role they can have on our politics.
Second, establish a vision for the role of government and follow a road map to attain it. For example, formulate an agenda to achieve high-quality universal health care.
Third, learn from the efforts of the Norquists and Koch brothers of the world, who have a well-planned, -financed, and -executed program to “shrink the government.” We need a comprehensive, coordinated strategy to achieve progressive goals.
Fourth, rather than focusing on “entitlements” for the poor and elderly, promote the idea that all Americans are entitled to excellent health-care coverage. The only solution is to make health care work for all of us.
Fifth, there is enough “waste” and inefficiency in the health-care system to provide health services for all while not threatening our economy. Understand the barriers to making the health-care system more efficient and work to remove them.
Sixth, rather then maintaining the fantasy that solutions will come from our politicians who are beholden to special interests, we as citizens must engage to create and implement a vision for our country that serves all.
President, Citizens for Health