I could almost feel sorry for Congresswoman Kristi Noem. Almost.
It turns out Rep. Kristi Noem's complete cluelessness about policy and her inattention to committee work are not unique to her laziness and arrogant lack of intellectual curiosity. Noem is actually surrounded by colleagues who are kept clueless by the fundraising demands of constant campaign mode.
The Huffington Post obtained a slideshow from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee presented at House freshman orientation in November. That document tells members that, in the standard ten-hour workday, the party bosses expect them to spend four hours a day on the phone calling donors. Another hour goes toward "strategic outreach," which includes working the press and begging for campaign contributions face-to-face. Then, says the DCCC, spend a couple hours meeting constituents and a couple dropping by committee and the floor.
These expectations, shared by the leadership of both parties, create a culture that shirks the real work of government:
Congressional hearings and fundraising duties often conflict, and members of Congress have little difficulty deciding between the two -- occasionally even raising money from the industry covered by the hearings they skip. It is considered poor form in Congress -- borderline self-indulgent -- for a freshman to sit at length in congressional hearings when the time could instead be spent raising money. Even members in safe districts are expected to keep up the torrid fundraising pace, so that they can contribute to vulnerable colleagues [Ryan Grim and Sabrina Siddiqui, "Call Time For Congress Shows How Fundraising Dominates Bleak Work Life," Huffington Post, 2013.01.08].
That grim insight explains Rep. Noem's committee absences, her phone addiction, and her dropping of a committee assignment and a leadership position. She really doesn't have the time to serve us and serve the fundraising demands of the leadership.
Kevin Drum at Mother Jones notes that the fundraising requirements crowd out any time dedicated to learning about issues. We end up with Congresspeople who don't know what they are talking about, who don't ask the questions they should, and who lean in their statements and votes, quite naturally, toward the people with whom they spend the most time talking: rich campaign donors:
Working a schedule like that as a freshman teaches a member of Congress about the institution's priorities. "It really does affect how members of Congress behave if the most important thing they think about is fundraising," Miller said. "You end up being nice to people that probably somebody needs to be questioning skeptically. It's a fairly disturbing suggested schedule. You won't ask tough questions in hearings that might displease potential contributors, won't support amendments that might anger them, will tend to vote the way contributors want you to vote" [Grim and Siddiqui, 2013.01.08].
I could thus understand if Rep. Noem were to cry out in despair, "I want to do politics right! I want to learn about the issues! I want to help constituents solve real problems as quickly as possible! But the party bosses and the tyranny of campaign finance would make Jesus weep in this job." But that's all the more reason we need Congresspeople who are truly dedicated to changing Washington, not to playing the game and serving their own selfish ambition. Rep. Noem likes to talk about changing Washington, but her actions show she's following the D.C. culture to a T.
But even if we kick Noem out next year and replace her with a more exemplary leader, how do we keep the D.C. culture from drowning that person's principles? Alex Pareene says the solutions are obvious and, in the current political climate, impossible:
The annoying thing is that the solutions to these problems are incredible simple: public financing of elections and huge increases in congressional staff budgets. But you might notice that both of those solutions involve spending more money on the government, making them non-starters in our age of bipartisan agreement that government spending is unseemly [Alex Pareene, "Congress Is Awful Because Members Spend All Day Long Talking to Rich People," Salon.com, 2013.01.09].
Current law forbids members of Congress from fundraising from their official offices, but Grim and Siddiqui note that our Congresspeople just run across the street to rented houses and offices to put in their phone time.
Permit me thus to offer one more suggestion: a time clock. Here at Spearfish High School, my board expects me to be available to students from 7:56 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. During that official school day, with the exception of lunch time, my boss expects me to conducting school business. And when I'm conducting school business, I don't get to engage in political speech. We may not like infringements on the First Amendment, but our employers impose such restrictions all the time, and we generally accept those restrictions as conditions of employment.
So let's apply the official school day to Congress. When Congress is in session, let's define the official legislative day as 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. During the official legislative day, we expect Congresspeople to be in the main chamber, in committee, or in meetings with constituents, staff and fellow members, or the press. During that time, Congresspeople make no fundraising calls or contacts.
To make that rule stick, during the legislative day, we require complete public transparency from members of Congress. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., every person a member of Congress meets and every place a member of Congress goes is a matter of public record, posted online, updated daily. When a member's activities do not relate to national security, we treat those meetings as public and post transcripts online.
How we enforce this rule is an open question. If a member raises money during the legislative day, the member must surrender that cash to the Treasury... or better yet, the campaign committee of the opposing party. Such a bounty might motivate members to watch each other like hawks.
Rep. Kristi Noem exemplifies the poor lawmaking we get from the institutional forces of campaign finance. But those forces are not beyond her control. If she could dig up some shreds of courage and principle, she could put down the phone, pick up the books, talk to her constituents more than her PAC donors, and lead the charge to reform a big-money system that makes government stupid.