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Column: Lawmakers hate fundraising, but not as much as they hate campaign-finance reform

bayhrecorder.JPG

When all is said and done, the 2010 elections will have cost more than $2 billion, or even twice that amount, by some estimates. Those are staggering sums, leading some observers, such as Yahoo's Daniel Gross, to wonder whether, in a weak economy, we shouldn't have elections every year. "Quantitative electioneering," he calls it.

Some of that money has come from small donors, people who felt strongly about the direction of the country and dug into their own pockets to make it better. That's all for the good. But much of it has come from corporations trying to buy access with winners, secret donors trying to purchase the votes that will make them richer and ideological hit-groups that delight in the scurrilous attacks that candidates themselves would never make. I almost feel bad for our politicians - it's an unpleasant business they've chosen.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) is retiring this year. He didn't lose his race, and he wasn't down in the polls. He's just, well, leaving. And one of the reasons is that he's tired of raising money. "It's miserable," he said. "It is not uncommon to have a fundraiser for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner, and if you have spare time in between, you go to an office off Capitol Hill and you dial for dollars. Then the weekend rolls around, and you get on a plane and travel the countryside with a tin cup in your hand. And it gets worse each cycle."

The problem, he argued, isn't just that raising money is unpleasant, or just that it gives the rich too much sway, or just that it makes the public cynical ("You want to be engaged in an honorable line of work," Bayh said, "but they look at us like we're worse than used-car salesmen"). The real problem is that it means lawmakers can't do their jobs.

"When candidates for public office are spending 90 percent of their time raising money," Bayh said, "that's time they're not spending with constituents or with public policy experts."

So, why don't the politicians do something about it? If raising money is so miserable and corrupting and distracting and discrediting, why not publicly finance campaigns? Or strip away the anonymity of outside groups? Or pass a bill that matches small-donor contributions, thus making it easier for politicians to fund their candidacies by exciting voters rather than lobbyists?

The answer is depressing: Few politicians in office like the current system, but they're better at it than everyone else is. They've got donor networks, relationships with lobbyists, corporate friends and activist groups that will help them out. Their potential challengers don't.

"The people in the position to make these rules have succeeded in the system as it exists," Bayh said. "Asking them to change the rules from which they've benefited is difficult."

Consider the lifestyle Bayh outlined: fundraisers three times a day and more on the weekends. Dialing for dollars. And we've not even talked about the money you're supposed to raise for your party to help others get elected.

"The United States Senate is a dues-paying organization now," Bayh lamented. "Junior members have to raise this much, committee chairs have to raise that much. Find that in a civics book."

Who would want to run for office, if that's what running for - and holding - office means? How many people want to give up that much time with their family, that much dignity, that much autonomy? If you're a successful businessman or a local teacher, why would you want to give up a good life to do this?

From the perspective of the incumbent, that's all for the better: The more impressive challengers who back off when they realize what's involved, the fewer impressive challengers they have to face. That helps keep them safe until a wave election like this one will probably be. But for the rest of us, it means the candidates whom the waves bring in are worse than they'd be if running for office was a more attractive proposition.

So for all that the incumbents dislike the system, they tend to like the idea of reforming it even less. Dave Durenberger, a Republican who represented Minnesota in the Senate from 1978 to 1995, told me about his experience trying to reform campaign finance laws. "Phil Gramm was our campaign committee chair back then," he remembered, "and he tore my picture down in the campaign committee office. Connie Mack and Mitch McConnell came to me and said, 'You're going to kill us.' "

That sort of reaction not only makes it hard for campaign finance reform to pass, it makes it hard for any individual legislator to even propose it.

I asked Bayh if he saw any hope on the horizon. His answer wasn't what I'd categorize as hopeful, but it had the ring of truth to it: "There'll be a major scandal at some point that'll shock the public," he predicted. "It'll be worse than what happened with Abramoff. And at that point, the system will be changed."

Here's hoping?

Photo credit: Melina Mara/TWP

By Ezra Klein  | November 1, 2010; 2:21 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms, Articles  
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Comments

This article is gives a great insight here, thanks Ezra. I'm just left wondering why we dont just ditch reelections altogether - wouldnt that be the easiest way to solve this? The people in office wouldnt have to raise money and they could concentrate on making laws.

Posted by: staypuftman | November 1, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I liked that column.

We in America do not have much appreciation of 'danger of corruption'. Americans, especially Tea Party, give damn when Transparency International ranks USA at 22 in corruption; primarily electoral funding non-transparency.

Roberts court has single handledly ushered the era of election funding non-transparency in this country which will undermine our Democracy.

When Alan Greenspan justified Bush Tax Cuts, some criticized him. But he scoffed those as well many in America. Decade later we are paying the price and Greenspan himself says he missed. It is like Robert McNmara saying how he was wrong for Vietnam war - after 2 decades. Same way these decisions of Robert Courts will be looked back in future.

Supreme Court Judge John Roberts is one of the smartest men (much brainy than this humble commenter), but he has singularly dis-served America, he has practically sabotaged our Democracy.

But we will not know this, we are ready to accept and far from prepared to change it.

We are heading fast to the level of electoral corruption which exists in India and Russia. Americans are oblivious to this cancer and Bayh is correct - may be when we will get a shocking, Katrina like scandal, we Americans will try to do something about then.

Don't expect anything from 112th Congress. For them, it is getting just started. For 2012 it will be possibly $5Billion or so will be spend. Sen. McConnell has his basics already worked - defeat Obama by any means; so what if it means non-transparent election funding?

Posted by: umesh409 | November 1, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

I love how Ezra always mentions the evil corporations trying to sway the policitians, and almost never mentions the unions doing the same thing. The soft money on the GOP/corporate side is just the mirror image of the DEM/union side.

Posted by: WEW72 | November 1, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

loved Senator Bayh on Morning Joe this morning. He basically said that Obama's been hurt that the House is governing from the left which isn't what he was brought in to do. He said that center and center right makes up 78% of the electorate and having a Speaker who is on the far left is what hurt Obama. Thankfully that time is drawing to an end.

Its also very easy to fundraise when you're on polarizing sides. If you're Sharon Angle and say something stupid the far left uses it as ammo for their fundraising focus and if you're Alan Grayson and call someone Taliban Dan it ends up being a fundraising coup for the right. Sadly those that are center candidates and moderates like Senator Bayh find that the squeaky wheel gets the grease so he ends up having to do more fundraisers than the loonies from either side.

Posted by: visionbrkr | November 1, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Comprehensive election reform would look like this:

1. Remove redistricting authority from the states and create a non-partisan electoral committee to create districts.

2. Politicians running for office need a given amount of signatures, once attained, those politicians will get public financing for their elections. Campaigns cannot accept any outside money and will only use their publicly allotted amount.(Sorry millionaires and billionaires)

3. The US Presidential Election will be decided by popular vote, and not by electoral college. Presidential elections need to be decided by all 50 states and not Ohio, Florida, and Penn.

4. Senators and House members will have term limits. 2 for Senate, four for House. Once in place, these limits will speed up Congress so freshmen don't have to have much seniority to create legislation and head committees.

5. Only politicians can run ads, not third parties.(Sorry karl rove)

Posted by: photek00 | November 1, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Ezra and all of his Journalist buddies cheered when Obama went back on his pledge to only accept public financing for his presidential campaign because it gave him an advantage over John McCain. And now that the Republicans have the fund raising advantage it is suddenly a problem. You liberals are so funny.

Posted by: cummije5 | November 1, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Ezra:

Go back and check your divided government blog from just after lunch. It's atrociously errant. You need to post some corrections.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 1, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

"When all is said and done, the 2010 elections will have cost more than $2 billion, or even twice that amount, by some estimates. Those are staggering sums, leading some observers, such as Yahoo's Daniel Gross, to wonder whether, in a weak economy, we shouldn't have elections every year. "Quantitative electioneering," he calls it."

You seriously brought this up again?

Not only is the money donated to political candidates and causes no longer available to the donors for other spending, not only does the money buy annoying political ads, but even under Keynesian assumptions it is too small to make a difference. If the problem with ARRA was that it was too small, of what use is a spending program less than 1/100th of ARRA's size?

"Some of that money has come from small donors, people who felt strongly about the direction of the country and dug into their own pockets to make it better. That's all for the good. But much of it has come from corporations trying to buy access with winners, secret donors trying to purchase the votes that will make them richer and ideological hit-groups that delight in the scurrilous attacks that candidates themselves would never make."

I was initially skeptical of a proposal to increase the number of Representatives, but maybe having 20,000 of them wouldn't be such a bad idea. You wouldn't need millions of dollars to get your message out - you could literally walk around and meet everyone you wanted to have vote for you. Might even have a chance of a few reps without a D or R after their name.

Posted by: justin84 | November 1, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Dave Weigel hack this website today? Amateur hour post. . . .
Nice zinger staypuftman

Posted by: cdosquared5 | November 1, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

So please remind me why Bayh is still sitting on 10 mil in campaign cash???

and not sharing it with needy democrats???

Posted by: ftkyte | November 1, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Ideally perhaps we would have publically funded elections without outside money influencing - however, we should be very wary of a system where all you need to gain credibility is a few thousand signatures. That is going to be a world of inexperienced and unqualified candidates. It also would be a world of very ideologically extreme candidates.

Posted by: Levijohn | November 1, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

How does Evan Bayh stand upright without a spine?

Posted by: notfooledbydistractions1 | November 1, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

In 5 or 10 years, when the sea ice is gone from the Arctic in the summer, a chunk breaks off the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and scientists find more methane escaping as the permafrost melts, there are heatwaves and droughts in the southern part of the country and the Midwest, and gas prices are up over $4.00 again, maybe it will occur to more than a few people that they were the victims of a massive con job by the Koch brothers and their allies at big oil and big coal and the Chamber of Commerce.

Posted by: Mimikatz | November 1, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

This year is a perfect example. Two super-PACs aligned in favor of Social-Democrat candidates have outspent all Republican PACs and candidates combined, yet many in the public aren't aware of the money such Democrat Party front-groups have used to corrupt the election process.

The cleansing will tomorrow's election, yet the election itself is much like the first round of chemotherapy: the initial effects will likely not be perceived as pleasant.

The House must soon take up the deferred ethics hearings against two Democrats; however, once the 112th Congress has been seated, perhaps the fresh-and-clean members of the House -- perhaps led by a significantly cleaner Speaker -- can begin removing tax loopholes which benefit groups like Center for American Progress (and its funded subordinates). After that, a national right to work law can be enacted to eliminate forced political speech ("donations") by members of SEIU and other union corporations. Those are baby steps, to be sure, but they are steps which begin to address the corruption which currently infests the Democrat Party.

Posted by: rmgregory | November 1, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

It's campaign finance reform that created the need for constant fundraising. And public funding would amount to incumbent protection, since the incumbent always has the advantage of name recognition. Not to mention that the public hates public election funding.

Posted by: tomtildrum | November 1, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Create public financing and have it phase in a couple election cycles from now. That way, like the insurance companies with many of HCR's larger measures coming online in 2014, incumbents will have time to adjust to the new reality.

The basic assumption that $ = free speech, like corporations = persons, hasn't been serving democracy well.

Posted by: Lonepine | November 1, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

rmgregory said: "This year is a perfect example. Two super-PACs aligned in favor of Social-Democrat candidates have outspent all Republican PACs and candidates combined, yet many in the public aren't aware of the money such Democrat Party front-groups have used to corrupt the election process. "

Dear God what in the hell are you talking about.

I would honestly love to see some proof of this. Nothing I've seen from observers like the Sunlight Foundation shows anything close to what you've described here.

Posted by: StPaulite | November 1, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

StPaulite,

feel free to apologize to rmgregory anytime you'd like.

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1010/44216.html

The money race totals come to $856 million for the Democratic committees and their aligned outside groups, compared to $677 for their Republican adversaries, based on figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Posted by: visionbrkr | November 1, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

"which isn't what he was brought in to do."

Self-serving cod-centrist BS from a politician who rode his father's coattails without any of his father's principles or courage.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 1, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

I've noticed that visionbrkr has gotten progressively crazier since I last checked in. Now he's just another angry, dumb suburban Republicans frothing about Nancy Pelosi. You have a president who passed a rather middle-of-the-road agenda, what he was elected to do. And in the same way you lashed out in hatred and voted for Bush in 2000 to punish the Democrats for making a fool out of you by showing that Clinton was a decent president, you're lashing out at Obama for passing a pretty decent set of laws. That and you've been told day in and day out to hate Nancy Pelosi. But that, visionbrkr, is the sort of thing that makes your wife and children ashamed of you.

That you want to go back to the absolute disaster that is the Republican Congress pretty much establishes to me that insurance bureaucrats have very little moral compass and very poor judgment.

Posted by: constans | November 1, 2010 8:32 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: adfjsfsfg | November 1, 2010 9:43 PM | Report abuse

constans,

really? My wife and children should be ashamed of me?

All I did was report on what Senator Bayh said. If you're bitter that Dems are about to lose their majorities then that's your deal not mine and you can spout of idiotic comments about my wife and children all you like but all that does it make you look pathetic and seriously out of touch. Something I already knew though. Others maybe not so much. If you don't get that this is a center right country then you just haven't been paying attention which is par for the course with you.

Btw i'm not an "insurance bureaucrat" as you infer but you haven't said much correct to date so why start now.

Posted by: visionbrkr | November 2, 2010 8:08 AM | Report abuse

Say, Ezra, funny that you didn't call for public financing for Obama during the 2008 election, when he went back on his promise to accept public financing. WUWT?

Posted by: NCDevil | November 2, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

"If you don't get that this is a center right country then you just haven't been paying attention which is par for the course with you."

Pro-jec-tion from another self-centered cod-centrist.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 2, 2010 7:15 PM | Report abuse

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