When we worry about money in politics, we tend to worry about a system that's akin to bribery. That happens, but it's rarer then you might think. Typically, politicians raise money from interests they're already relatively aligned with. Money brings the legislator and his benefactor closer into alignment, and it certainly helps concentrate a politician's attention on issues they might otherwise have ignored, but it's uncommon for a sack of cash to flip a vote outright.
What we don't worry about enough is the way the hunt for money saps another precious resource: time. A few months back, I sat down with former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd, who marveled at the sums that were spent in his state's 2010 Senate race. "I don’t know how you do it," he said. "I would have no idea how to raise that kind of money in a campaign. And that’s new to me. I don’t know what that’s meant in terms of people’s ability then to concentrate on their jobs."
Politics is a complicated business, and learning how to do it well takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. You need to spend time learning about issues that you never even considered, much less studied. You need to spend time building relationships with your colleagues. You need to spend time meeting with your constituents and hearing their concerns. You need to spend time shuttling back and forth from your district. You need to spend time preparing for, and attending, committee hearings. You need to spend time searching for outside experts whose advice you trust. And you also, of course, need to spend enough time with your family and your old friends that you don't completely lose touch with your humanity.
All that would be enough to fill a completely empty schedule. But all that's impossible if you're spending four hours dialing for dollars each day and another hour or two attending fundraising breakfasts and lunches. The fact is that fundraising is squeezing everything else out. During a recent interview, Sen. Tom Harkin reminisced about the glory days of the Senate dining room. “I can remember going down there to lunches with Biden and Fritz Hollings and Ted Stevens and all these people," he told me. "We’d go down there and have lunch together and talk and joke. We had a camaraderie. We don’t even have the dining room anymore, they closed it up. Because no one would go there anymore."
I asked Harkin why his colleagues stopped going. A big part of the reason, he said, was fundraising. "Starting sometime in the '90s, certainly by the end of the 2000s, you’d go down there, and there’d be one or two people there. Then pretty soon nobody’d go, and they just shut it down. And why is that? Well, we’re not here on Mondays. Tuesday is the party caucuses. Thursday’s the policy lunch, and Friday you’re out of here. So that only leaves Wednesday. And what are people doing Wednesday? They’re out raising money. Everybody’s at a fundraiser. I mean, so there is no time any longer for these lunches that we used to have."
Time, they say, is money, and it's as true in politics as it is anywhere else. But if you spend all your time raising money, you don't spend it learning policy or getting to know your colleagues or listening to your constituents.
But let's not pretend the politicians are blameless victims here. Though every politician complains about the burdens of fundraising — like "putting bamboo shoots under my fingernails," Rep. John Larson told the Huffington Post — Congress could, if it wanted, move to a system of real public financing for elections. They don't, and the reason is simple: The money chase makes life miserable for incumbents, but it also makes it likelier that they remain incumbents. After all, your challengers aren't spending four hours a day, every day, raising money almost two years before the next election. If you're an incumbent, then the present system of campaign finance gives you an advantage. Even as it makes you worse at your job, it makes you better at keeping it.