Commuting to Congress: Episode 1

Congressman John Sarbanes discusses how members of Congress are spending too much time fundraising. You can find the full Rick Nolan interview with Chuck Todd here and the Washington Post article on the retirement of Senator Tom Harkin can be found here


This is John Sarbanes with the view from inside and outside the nation’s capital. I say inside the nation’s capital because I’m a member of Congress, having served there for six years, and so I get an insider’s perspective on what is happening. But I also get the view from outside the capital because I’m one of the few members of Congress who’s able to get out of Washington everyday and get back home to my district and talk to real people and look back on Washington and think about how we can try to fix the place. So, today I wanted to talk about money in politics, in particular, I wanted to focus on the effect that big money is having on the way members of Congress are living their lives, and particularly how they operate in Washington. And the occasion for this focus today is a couple articles of stories that ran recently that I think really give some good insight into what’s happening, what it means, to have so much money involved in the culture of Washington. And, of course, that’s driven by the fact that it costs so much money to run campaigns these days that members of Congress find themselves spending an inordinate amount of time at fundraising events, on the phone making cold calls to people they’ll never meet, trying to raise the dollars that they’re going to need to wage their campaign. There was a story on MSNBC recently; I think it ran on the 18th of January. Chuck Todd, as part of his daily rundown, is talking to new members of Congress, but he managed to find a new member of congress who’s actually an old member of Congress. Rick Nolan served in the House of Representatives back in the ‘70s. He was elected from 1976 through 1981. He then left the Congress, and as he likes to say, his friends call him “Rick van Winkle” because he then took a thirty year nap and woke up again and ran for Congress in this past election cycle and was elected. So, he arrives in Washington after a thirty year, thirty-two year hiatus. And in his discussion with Chuck Todd, the thing that he mentioned as the biggest difference between when he served in Congress before and served now, is the incredible emphasis that is placed on raising money, and how that has really changed the whole way that members of Congress relate to their jobs in Washington. We don’t spend as much time on committee work, reading the material. There’s less time to build relationships with colleagues, because so much emphasis is placed on making fundraising calls. In fact, there is a memo from one of the campaign committees that instructs new members on how much time they’re going to have to spend fundraising. Now, Rick Nolan says he’s not going to capitulate to that. He believes he can do his job the way he used to do it in the old days, and I wish him god-speed in that endeavor, but my experience, having been there for six years, is it’s very hard to resist this pressure to spend a lot of your time fundraising. Nolan points out that when he first ran, or I guess the last time he ran for office back in 1981, he raised $250,000 dollars for his campaign. This time around, if you count all of the outside money that was spent in his election, the price tag was almost $20 million dollars, which is really unfathomable when you think about it, but it gives you an idea of the incredible pressure that members of Congress are under to raise campaign money. So that’s the interesting perspective from somebody that’s been out of it for thirty years, coming back to it, and it’s interesting because most of the new members of Congress, of course, are coming to the system and finding it as it is. They’re told from the first time they have any interest in becoming a member of Congress that this is just the way the game is played, and you got to spend all this time raising money, so when they show up in Washington on the first day, they have some expectation that this is what it’s going to be like. That doesn’t make it right, however. And it doesn’t mean that we aren’t undermining the basic process of governing in Washington, when so much time is getting diverted to fundraising, and away from making good public policy. But I also want to point you to another perspective, and this is from Tom Harkin, who’s a long-time Senator from Iowa; served in Congress for forty years, and has made the decision to leave Congress. And I’m sure there’s a variety of reasons of why he’s concluded that now is the moment for retirement, but in an interview that he did with The Washington Post on January 26th, among the reasons he cited as it not being so much fun anymore or productive to serve in the Senate, to serve in Congress, is the amount of time that’s spent on fundraising. So here you have the perspective of somebody who never left for the last forty years, has really been around during this change in the culture in Washington, has seen how this emphasis on raising money has really changed things. And one of the reasons he’s deciding to hang it up, and move on, and retire, is because he’s fed up with it. There’s a quote in The Washington Post interview where he says, “The time is so consumed with raising money now, these campaigns that you don’t have time for the kind of personal relationships that so many of us built up over time.” And when you think about it, the most important factor in a legislative arena, in terms of getting this done, are the relationships that are built between the members, between individuals, the friendships that form over time. Because that’s really what allows you to overcome the political differences that you have to build trust, and to reach compromise on good, sound public policy. So, here we have one legislator who went away for thirty years and came back and his first impression is that money is corroding the system and is toxic to the functioning of the democracy, and the functioning of Congress. And you have another member who stayed for forty years and is citing this incredible emphasis on raising money as the reason why the Congress doesn’t function as well anymore, and that’s the reason he’s deciding to leave. So whatever perspective you have, I think there’s a consensus that’s emerging among members of Congress that we’ve got to do something to address this situation, that it’s unsustainable. And many of you have focused on this yourself. And I’ve talked to people outside of Washington, so let me take off my Congressman’s hat now and put on the hat of a citizen who goes back to Baltimore everyday and then looks at Washington and wonders what we can do to fix the system. But when I talk to my constituents, when I talk to my fellow citizens out there, they’re pretty cynical about whether Washington can get anything done. And it’s because they perceive that there’s this very heavy dependency on raising money from special interests and big money. And they feel like, maybe the Congress is leaning in the direction of the special interests and away from ordinary people and what they care about. And I think there’s a lot to that. So whichever lens you bring to this problem, whether you’re a member inside of the Congress who’s struggling to do the right thing in the face of these demands of raising a tremendous amount of money, or whether you’re an ordinary citizen out there who wants your government to work for you, and you see that the influence of big money makes it very difficult for that to happen. We’ve got to come up with some kind of solution. So, I encourage you all to stay tuned on this topic. I’m particularly interested in how we can think out of the box in pursuing a different path. I’d like to see campaigns funded more at the grassroots. I think that we can set up a system of public funds to sort of match the grassroots investment in candidates that are trying to do the right thing and I’ve introduced the Grassroots Democracy Act to pursue that. But I also think that we maybe ought to consider how can you run a campaign and not spend as much money. So there’s two paths we can take. One is: What’s the grassroots solution for raising the same kind of money that you need these days to run a campaign. But, in the alternative, is it possible to run a winning campaign without spending as much money? Maybe using other means of communication to reach the voters. So if you have any thoughts about either of those approaches, or if you have questions you’d like to ask us about this topic, or any other as we continue forward with this series of podcasts, My View from Inside and Outside of The Nation’s Capital, you can e-mail me at, you can follow us on Facebook, and you can follow us on Twitter at GrassrootsDonor. And we look forward to the discussion we have on this issue of money in politics as we move forward. This is John Sarbanes signing off from the View from Inside and Outside The Nation’s Capital.