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Constant Fundraising Makes Congress Stupid: Fix with Official Work Day, Transparency

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,", 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.


  1. Bill Fleming 2013.01.12

    More and more I'm becoming convinced that the promlems is the two party political system. We care more about running and winning than governing.

  2. larry kurtz 2013.01.12

    Who else is wondering whether the American Experiment fails before the Human Experiment expires?

  3. Dana P. 2013.01.12

    I like your idea, Cory. It makes a bunch of sense. Taking money/winning-at-all-costs out of politics, just seems to be so dang logical. So I guess, that is the reason they don't do it?

    If you liked their daily schedule, then you will be a big fan of the "year-at-a-glance" schedule. (This was released earlier this year by Majority Leader Cantor)

    With the supposed "travel home and provide at least one constituent work week each month" directive, then Ms Noem should have plenty of time available to meet with South Dakotans all over the state. Should, being the key word.

    Side note: With the debt ceiling "crisis" bearing down on this country like the Titanic heading full force towards an iceberg, wouldn't it be better to spend more days in Washington AND less time on the phone sucking up for $$$??? Working and doing the things voters sent them to do? sigh

  4. larry kurtz 2013.01.12

    In the '60s and '70s the NRA pushed gun control out of fear of the Black Panther Movement and now the temporary spikes in gun and ammo sales are boosting stock prices for weapons manufacturers.

    But this spike will collapse as people barricade themselves in their homes and the NRA wins as President Obama's measures to keep the economy from tanking.

    The US is screwed no matter what happens.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.01.12

    Dana, I'd happily give Noem a pass on flying home each week if it meant she was staying in Washington to study the issues and get our work done. Instead of flying back and forth all the time to maintain some illusion of staying in touch with us, she should kick her staff into gear to answer the phones and e-mails and letters and take action on constituent service.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.01.12

    Bill, does the big-money problem go away if we move to a three- or four- or more-party system? Is there a (constitutional) way to go the other direction and remove parties completely from the process?

  7. Dana P. 2013.01.12

    yep, I would also, Cory. (You were much better at explaining my point than I was!! LOL) They do like the faux illusions, don't they? (like Toto pulling back the curtain on Mr Oz)

    There are priorities. It is so maddening with all of the work that needs to get done (and Ms Noem talks all of the time about so much work to do!!),that she/they are flying home for a week, and not sticking around D.C., rolling up their sleeves and getting it done. It truly is shameful.

  8. Rorschach 2013.01.12

    So that's the standard Congressional work day while in DC. And Rep. Noem is a "typical politician."

    It's bad enough that they spend more time raising money than performing the job itself during a "standard work day." Now let's see the whole picture: Doesn't Congress only schedule 3 "standard work days" per week? And what are the dates Congress is typically not in session? It may be that a typical politician like Rep. Noem puts in a hectic schedule, but does precious little public business in exchange for the $174,000 salary.

  9. Jenny 2013.01.12

    How many committees is the average House member on? My House rep, Tim Walz, is on three committees - Ag, Veteran's Affairs, and Transportation and Infrastructure. Noem is on only two- Ag and House Armed Services.

  10. Michael Black 2013.01.12

    According to Cory's info, one party is just as bad as the other when it comes to worrying about re-election fundraising rather than taking care of business.

    I thought it wasn't possible for my opinion of Congress to go any lower. I was wrong.

  11. Jana 2013.01.12

    In no particular order:

    Ditch the party system all together.

    Public financing.

    Stricter control of franking privileges.

    No fundraising from Congressional offices.

    Public daily accountability reports, by the hour, matched with committee assignments and House activities posted online.

    Documentation of all fundraising activity.

    Mandatory open town hall meetings.

  12. mike 2013.01.12

    AMEN CORY!!!

  13. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.01.12

    Good suggestions, Jana! We ought to be able to use the Web to make that documentation and accountability beefier than ever . Now how about this idea: a guy I met at a blog conference said he was going to run for office and, if elected, wear a w we beam to broadcast live his every official action and conversation. Time to put a webcam on Kristi?

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.01.12

    Mike, the HuffPo article mentions that the GOP leaders demand more in "dues" than do the Dem bosses... but yes, both parties bear the blame and make the problem worse. Both parties need to help us break this institutional forces and get us back to governing.

  15. Michael Black 2013.01.12

    Cory, just give up. Their party leaders don't want them to have the time to listen.

  16. Bill Fleming 2013.01.13

    To Jana's list I would add "repeal Citizens United".

  17. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.01.13

    Never give up! Never surrender!

    Bill, indeed, we need to add Citizens United to Jana's reform list. Simplest way to do that—abolish corporate personhood?

  18. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.01.13

    Actually, Jenny, Noem's two-committee assignment isn't unusual. I just turned this House Committee roster from the last Congress into a sloppy spreadsheet. House members who serve on Appropriations usually have that as their only committee; I assume appropriations work is heavier than other committee work. Non-Appropriations members serve on an average of 1.96 committees.

  19. Michael Black 2013.01.13

    Cory, Congress as a whole has developed a culture that is the enemy of the American people. How can we trust our government when the only thing they are good at is sabotaging the economy so the opposing party can't claim success?

  20. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.01.13

    True, Michael. The political fundraising is inimical to our interests. But that doesn't mean we give up. That means we come up with a plan to take Congress back. If Gandhi could shame the British into freeing India, we should be able to shame Noem, Johnson, Thune, and the rest into freeing our Congress to do our work.

  21. Jana 2013.01.13

    Bill makes the best point with the first comment. "We care more about running and winning than governing."

    Politics has become a fraternity/sorority game and governing is soon to be lost.

  22. Jana 2013.01.13

    I would follow that the game of politics in South Dakota is played for profit and good governance seems to be the last thing on their mind.

  23. Michael Black 2013.01.13

    Grover Norquist repeatedly suggested putting the fiscal cliff debate on CSPAN. The party leaders brokered a last minute deal behind closed doors that no one had time to digest before voting on it. And we are poised to have it happen all over again. You can be assued that any individual member of Congress that makes too much noise will be disciplined by their party leaders.

  24. Dana P. 2013.01.16

    Now they are getting back to work! A three day kabash has been put on meeting with constituents, and sucking up to donors. Time to roll up the sleeves and strategize how to continue to block the progress of this country in every way! (as long as they do what they can to try to make the President look bad, then in their minds, it's a good day!)

    Ms Noem says in everyone of her meaningless comments on Twitter - "retreat and share"!!

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