Congress spends too much time fundraising. But it’s less time than you think.

July 29, 2013

Remember this?

It's a snippet from a PowerPoint presentation to incoming freshmen by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that the Huffington Post got its hands on, and that caused lots of handwringing around Washington.

And it is, indeed, a bummer: It implies that members of Congress should be spending the biggest chunk of their day fundraising ("call time" = fundraising, and "strategic outreach" can also = fundraising).

But perhaps it's not true.

Remember, that's just a sample schedule. That's what the DCCC -- the campaign arm of the House Democrats -- wishes all its recruits were doing. But that doesn't mean they're actually doing it. And it definitely doesn't mean entrenched incumbents are doing it.

This came up during my conversation with Bradford Fitch Monday morning (for more on that talk, see "In defense of Congress's summer vacation'). His organization, the Congressional Management Foundation, has done yeoman's work surveying members of Congress and their staffs about how they really spend their time. "I've asked this question of a lot of chiefs of staff," he says, "and they're lucky if they can get four or five hours a week raising money."

In the survey, fundraising falls under the broad category of "political/campaign work". And both when members are in Washington and when they're at home, they report that all political/campaign work takes up less than a fifth of their time -- and only part of that is fundraising. That's a far cry from the 40-50 percent fundraising time that the DCCC's model schedule envisions.

So how come you hear members of Congress complain about all the time they spend fundraising? "They exaggerate the amount of time they do it is they don’t like doing it," says Fitch. "I call this yard work syndrome. I don’t like doing my yard work so if you ask me how much of my weekend I spent on yard work I say the whole weekend. But it was really three hours."

It's also possible that there's huge variation in how much time members of Congress spend fundraising. That DCCC schedule might hold true for a new members from a contested district. But House incumbents typically have a 90 percent reelection rate. Most of them are in safe districts. A lot of the money they raise goes to the party rather than to them. They're not going to spend most of their day doing something they hate.

That's not to say members of Congress don't spend too much time fundraising. They do! But it's probably not four-five hours a day, even if the DCCC wishes it was.

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Neil Irwin · July 29, 2013