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What running for office does to people cont'd

In response to this post, a reader who's running for Congress writes in:

You are way off, Ezra. The time breakdown on fundraising during a campaign is more like 50-70%. It's absolutely horrifying. I used to be a policy wonk who could talk the most minute details of big bills and who actually read most of the health care bill. Now that I'm running in the XXXX XXXX (Dem primary), I spend all my time meeting with prospective donors and cold-calling past Dem donors. It's sad that when I'm the closest I've ever been to shaping policy, I'm also spending the least time in the past decade focused on immersing myself in it.

Time is money. But it's also leisure. And learning things. And talking to average constituents. And reading periodicals. And inviting experts to your congressional office to tell you what they know on a subject. The more time we insist candidates have to spend raising money, the less time they will spend doing other things.

What I can't understand, though, is why the drumbeat for public funding of elections isn't loudest within Congress itself. After all, congresspeople regularly say that they hate this part of the job. When they retire, they complain about it constantly. And yet, they don't seem particularly interested in changing it, even though they would be the most direct beneficiaries. I guess the answer is that once you've constructed a fundraising network you have an enormous advantage over competitors who have to do all that work from scratch, and so blocking campaign finance reform makes continued reelection more likely. But can that really be worth the day-to-day misery?

By Ezra Klein  |  March 4, 2010; 9:09 AM ET
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Why there isn't change? Easy enough: self-selection. People who're successful at fundraising make it into Congress; people who aren't, don't. If you're successful at it, you're less apt to complain enough to get it changed.

Interestingly, when a friend of mine decided to run for city council then finally mayor in my home town (100K residents, home the flagship state university campus), all these fundraisers and campaign managers came out of the woodwork to help her. As if there's an infrastructure waiting to find someone to support. It's too bad that, in the highest legislature of the land, smart people with good intentions have to become something they're not in order to have a chance to sit at the table.

Seems like other republics don't have as much of problem with this.

Posted by: Lonepine | March 4, 2010 9:29 AM | Report abuse

I'm sure you're already on this, but man would I love an explanation of what's being done about Stupak and his gang of idiots, as well as a post about the part of the Senate bill he objects to. Couldn't Stupak just introduce a separate bill (to add to all the other laws restricting federal funding for abortions) and pass it through the normal procedures? While I'm sure lots of liberals would vote against it, and rightly so, it seems like it'd be hard for Republicans to do so, and certainly hard to vote against it once it was separated from the Healthcare Bill proper.

Posted by: MosBen | March 4, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

I would argue that campaign funding reform may be mysteriously unloved in large part(or at least in part) because the provision of party funds is a part of the whip process. There's also the reptile-brain fear of the change in climate, and theoretical election risks, that would occur alongside finance reform. I propose that this alone is enough to make any incumbent politician reevaluate any election reform campaign promises.

Also, it's clearly socialism, or something.

Posted by: finale | March 4, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Public financing, like other forms of Campaign Finance Reform already advanced, tend to favor incumbents (for obvious reasons). As such, such legislation tends to seem extremely self-serving.

I expect real campaign finance reform that satisfied enough incumbents that they would pass it would also come off to the general public as blatantly anti-democratic. Because, by it's very nature, such legislation will tend to favor incumbents and the existing political class while discouraging challengers. Even if it didn't, cynical folks like me would probably still be suspicious.

@finale: "Also, it's clearly socialism, or something."

Call it "Political Welfare".

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 4, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

The problem is their skill sets align with raising money, obviously not with governing. Once their ability to schmooze donors wasn't necessary and if they couldn't take advantage of a larger war chest, they might actually be judged by job performance. They'd all be doomed.

Posted by: AndrewDClark | March 4, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I think when politicians do fund-raising for campaigns they make a lot of contacts which can help them not only while they are in office but also once they get out. Politicians are probably afraid that gravy train will end with reform.

Posted by: caed | March 4, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

It's especially puzzling for Democrats, who don't have an ideological stake in maintaining that the misery is a necessary side effect of free speech.

Posted by: jduptonma | March 4, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

It's good you're pointing out the true cost of our financing system - not so much the "appearance of corruption" that gets addressed by shifting the donation routing from one pathway to another (McCain-Feingold), but the opportunity cost inherent in the time and effort of constant fundraising.

Posted by: jduptonma | March 4, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

*_cynical_ folks like me*

The word you were looking for is "nihilistic."

Posted by: constans | March 4, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Kevin_Willis: "Public financing ... tend to favor incumbents (for obvious reasons)."

Please explain the obvious. If the incumbent and his challenger(s) both get the same amount of campaign money, how does that favor the incumbent?

Also, no study of the effects of Clean Elections (publicly financed, as in AZ) has ever shown it to favor incumbents. If anything, the fact that they don't favor incumbents may be the greatest difficulty in getting them passed.

Posted by: alex50 | March 4, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

I just caught up on your convo with Lawrence Lessig on this, Ezra, and it was quite worthwhile: .

I guess, in the end, we need to decide if what we want is a government composed mostly of sales people. Not that sales people are inherently bad people, it's just that their interests don't necessarily align with the interests of their customers. Which can be bad. And even though a lot of congresspeople complain about the sales portion of their jobs, what do they often do after leaving their jobs? They go into lobbying (aka sales). We've created this system (an offshoot of our culture) wherein we turn every interaction into a transaction. As much as I respect and admire and even vocally advocate for Lessig's initiatives, I don't quite know how we dig ourselves out of this hole we put ourselves in.

Posted by: slag | March 4, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

Incumbents don't want to face a candidate on equal footing every single race. In a lot of states a Senator can win with 70% of the vote (on both sides of the aisle) because they are so beloved and popular; and only face token opposition from a candidate who can barely raise $5,000 because they know its a long shot.

So why would you want to go into every single race knowing they will have the exact same war chest as you; when you could go into the race with a massive war chest and the opponent is broke? (This again uncompetitive races!) Its nice for the greater good, but who's looking out for you? #1. It will take grass roots to make public finance happen

Posted by: kevinamaley | March 4, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Kevin_Willis: "by it's very nature, such legislation will tend to favor incumbents and the existing political class while discouraging challengers."

How about looking at the present legislation before Congress (the Fair Elections Now Act) and seeing whether it's pro-incumbent? Also, how about looking at the present system which is extremely pro-incumbent and analyzing whether the proposed alternatives are worth the expense? No system will be perfect. The question is which will be better.

"Even if it didn't, cynical folks like me would probably still be suspicious."

Reasonable suspicion is a good quality. But that should drive us to look at facts and analysis, not just rest on suspicion. There may be a point where even our elected representatives are willing to take on a little more competitiveness to free themselves of the nonstop chore of raising money. (After all, if they thing they're doing good jobs, incumbency should still be a big advantage.)

"@finale: 'Also, it's clearly socialism, or something.'

"Call it 'Political Welfare'."

We have that now, except that it's funded by corporations. Campaigns cost money, and it can be our money or Exxon's money. Which should we prefer?

Posted by: dasimon | March 4, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Even if you figure out how to take the money out of politics, aspiring politicians still have to cultivate a talent for suffering fools gladly and asking them for their vote. So, your still left with a pretty skewed talent pool.

Posted by: bgmma50 | March 4, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

They may hate fund-raising AND not want to go to a public system. These things are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps the trade-off for public funds isn't good enough.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | March 4, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Good post, and it leads me to consider that your series on the structure of other governments would be even better if it addressed fundraising and political careers in the countries examined. It's tough to truly evaluate the merits of other systems if we don't understand how these systems test, sustain and recruit new members.

Posted by: LincolnKennedy | March 4, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Um, just to be clear, folks, the socialism comment was sarcasm- I'm totally in favor of some sort of public financing, though I admit that the devil is very much in the implementation details. As someone who wants to run for office himself someday, I'd love to not undergo the sort of transformation Kr. Klein writes about.

Posted by: finale | March 4, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Because they don't really hate it?

After all, it keeps the riff raff out. Riff raff being operationally defined as "people who know something about stuff."

You have to learn to distinguish crocodile tears from real ones.

Posted by: pj_camp | March 4, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I still maintain that for a more "well-known" blogger or public intellectual, the difficulty describe above isn't as great. You would be able to use grassroots donations from progressives (or conservatives, for whoever tends to agree with you) for a campaign. I think the issue is that you would still need to spend some time - maybe 30%, maybe 50%, whatever - meeting donors, and that can be frustrating. But again, as Ezra says, once elected you re-elected, you begin to form a more well-established fundraising network, which can ease the pain of spending so much time raising cash.

Posted by: gocowboys | March 4, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

"Please explain the obvious. If the incumbent and his challenger(s) both get the same amount of campaign money, how does that favor the incumbent?"

The incumbent typically starts with a huge advantage in name recognition, so the challenger needs to spend more in order to get him- or herself widely known. Capping them both at the same amount of money thus hobbles the challenger's ability to achieve a level playing field.

Posted by: tomtildrum | March 4, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

*****What I can't understand, though, is why the drumbeat for public funding of elections isn't loudest within Congress itself.*****

Are you joking? It's because incumbents possess a VAST advantage over any non-wealthy potential challenger when it comes to aggregating the large number of law-limited contributions ($4,600 IIRC) required to purchase advertising. For similar reasons incumbents aren't very keen on the idea of lifting these limits -- no congressperson wants to make fund-raising easier for potential challengers -- and that's exactly what would happen if a challenger were free to, say, accept a six or seven figure contribution from a supporter.

About 99% of the time I agree with your take on the issues over that of your colleague George Will, but on campaign finance restrictions he's been right for many years now: contribution limits are a dandy form of incumbent protection insurance.

Posted by: Jasper999 | March 4, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

1. They're good at it.
2. They have a built-in advantage against potential challengers. Big donors give disproportionate to incumbents, regardless of ideology.

Posted by: Sophomore | March 4, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

tomtildrum: "The incumbent typically starts with a huge advantage in name recognition, so the challenger needs to spend more in order to get him- or herself widely known. Capping them both at the same amount of money thus hobbles the challenger's ability to achieve a level playing field."

First, the Fair Elections Now Act does not place a cap on fundraising. It does allow candidates to be independent of those who provide funding by providing multiple matches for small donations and for more public funding when certain thresholds are reached.

Second, it's an opt-in system (to avoid constitutional problems), so challengers could try to raise funds "traditionally."

Third, the point is not to create a level playing field. The point is to give credible candidates enough independent funding to run their campaigns. Once you can get your word out effectively, still more money, while helpful, doesn't matter as much. More money doesn't always win elections, as many failed self-funding candidates will attest.

Ideally, I'd like to see a level playing field. But I'd take an unequal but leveler field to the grossly unlevel one we have today. Again, the question isn't whether a publicly funded system would be perfect; it's whether it would better, and whether it would be worth it.

Posted by: dasimon | March 4, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

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