clock menu more-arrow no yes

Reminder: Congress is a part-time legislature

Then-Congressman Eric Cantor NOT fundraising in Statuary Hall in 2013. It's illegal to raise funds on federal property, so members of Congress cross the street to make fundraising calls from party-provided facilities.
Then-Congressman Eric Cantor NOT fundraising in Statuary Hall in 2013. It's illegal to raise funds on federal property, so members of Congress cross the street to make fundraising calls from party-provided facilities.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

This week's Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report includes a column on Steve Israel (D-NY) and David Jolly (R-FL). Jolly is running for Marco Rubio's Senate seat, and Israel is retiring, but they are both on strike from their primary job: dialing for dollars, also known as "call time."

Call time means dialing for dollars from a cubicle at party committee offices near the Capitol, with an aide who tees up the next donor call while the member is still chatting with the previous prey. Israel, who also led the House Democratic campaign arm, likened it to waterboarding. By his estimate, he has logged 4,200 hours of call time during 15 years and counting in Congress.

In early 2013 it came out that House Democrats recommended that first-term members spend four hours a day on the phone talking to donors, and two hours a day doing, you know, legislative stuff. This leads to lots of time spent leaving messages and having disappointing conversations.

This presidential race has featured a lot of conversation about the effects of money on politics, with both a billionaire and a socialist claiming that donations induce politicians to change their views. The vast social science literature on this topic is inconclusive (so far), but two conclusions are warranted:

  • If legislators spend most of lives in a bubble of fellow politicians, staff, and donors, they will probably become less familiar with the problems and preferences of most of their constituents. This can help explain why legislators are much more responsive to wealthy constituents and organized interests.
  • Fundraising crowds out time for legislators to do the hard work of legislating: drafting proposals and reaching compromise with other legislators. Sure, many legislators seem averse to "compromise" anyway, but they may be more willing to try if they saw legislating as a full-time job with measurable results, the way they now view their FEC filings.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.