Once again, this is a news story: Member of Congress retires, bemoans the campaign finance system that he/she spent decades working. If it sounds like you've heard this before, you have. A bunch of times.
The latest to follow this pattern is Steve Israel, the Democratic New York congressman and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (the Democrats' main fundraising committee for House races). By his own estimate in a New York Times op-ed, he "spent roughly 4,200 hours in call time, attended more than 1,600 fund-raisers just for my own campaign and raised nearly $20 million in increments of $1,000, $2,500 and $5,000 per election cycle."
But it was dreadful. Of course. It always is:
"I attended political action committee fund-raisers, which are like panhandling with hors d'oeuvres. There were hours of "call time" â huddled in a cubicle, dialing donors. Sometimes double dialing and triple dialing. Whispering sweet nothings and other small talk into the phone in hopes of receiving large somethings. I'd sit next to an assistant who collated "call sheets" with donor's names, contribution histories and other useful information. ("How's Sheila? Your wife. Oh, Shelly? Sorry.")"
Before Israel, there was Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who gave us this wonderful aphorism when she announced her retirement last year: "Do I spend my time raising money, or do I spend my time raising hell?"
Also: Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) complained about it when he announced his retirement at the end of 2014:
"Each party, rather than working cooperatively for the American people, is more and more focused on winning the next election. Today, days after the 2014 election, you can walk into the call center for either party and find members dialing for dollars for 2016...Tonight there will be fundraisers across DC where members will discuss policy, not with their constituents, but with organizations that contribute to their campaigns...Mr. President, we have lost our way."
And: Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-LA) complained about it in 2013 when he announced his retirement:
"The time has come for someone else to advance that cause now. I made that decision when one stops aggressively raising money, well then people start to ask questions. And that's an unfortunate part of the business that we're in. But it's the main business, and it's 24 hours a day raising money. It's not fair. It's not fair for the member, not fair for constituency to have to be approached every day or two or week ore two about campaign contributions. So it's just a grueling business and I'm ready for another part of my life."
And Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) complained about it memorably in 2012 on an episode of This American Life:
"I think most Americans would be shocked — not surprised, but shocked — if they knew how much time a United States senator spends raising money. And how much time we spend talking about raising money, and thinking about raising money, and planning to raise money. And, you know, going off on little retreats and conjuring up new ideas on how to raise money."
This list could go on and on. Extrapolating from a 2013 PowerPoint presentation to incoming freshmen by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (which Israel chairs), members are expected to spend a third of their time raising money.
Which, again, sounds absolutely miserable.
And here's the problem: Regardless of what you think about the influence of campaign contributions on policy outcomes, or about the free speech value of money, fundraising clearly takes up an awful lot of members' time.
This is time they could be spending reading briefing binders, attending hearings, getting to know colleagues — exactly the kinds of things you'd expect members of Congress to do. Instead, they spend countless hours depressingly dialing for dollars, listening sympathetically to wealthy and generally partisan donors.
Perhaps even worse, who the hell wants to sign up for this job in the first place? Who wants to self-telemarket for hours on end? It takes abnormal amounts of narcissistic hubris, which most thoughtful people just don't have. Frankly, Congress could probably use a little more self-doubt. It might open up members to more alternative viewpoints.
Moreover, even if campaign contributions don't translate neatly into votes or outcomes (and it's tough to show a clear correlation), all those donors on the other end of the telephone line and across the room at fundraising events are not exactly average people. They are usually very wealthy people, the kind of people who are in a position to write a $2,000 check and not think twice. And spending all this time around them leads to a weird kind of worldview osmosis.
As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) described his experience raising money:
They [wealthy donors] have fundamentally different problems than other people. And in Connecticut especially, you spend a lot of time on the phone with people who work in the financial markets. And so you're hearing a lot about problems that bankers have and not a lot of problems that people who work at the mill in Thomaston, Conn., have. You certainly have to stop and check yourself.
In short, we have an absolutely ridiculous system of campaign finance.
Sure, it helps to have members of Congress saying this, over and over again, even if it's usually only when they're about to retire.
But what would be even better is if they said it more when they were not about to retire. Better still would be if they did something about it.