For lawmakers like Evan Bayh, the price of fundraising is too steep

By Ezra Klein
Sunday, October 31, 2010

When all is said and done - and by the time you read this, it might be - 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.

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.

Ezra Klein blogs about economic and domestic policy for The Washington Post.

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