The Tin Cup Congress; in between Fundraisers, They Squeeze in a Few Hours to Govern

By Stern, Philip M. | The Washington Monthly, May 1988 | Go to article overview
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The Tin Cup Congress; in between Fundraisers, They Squeeze in a Few Hours to Govern


Stern, Philip M., The Washington Monthly


The Tin Cup Congress

In between fundraisers, they squeeze in a few hours to govern.

What is the effect on members of Congress of the skyrocketing need for campaign funds and the resulting, never-ending scramble for money? What is its impact on the legislative process? How has campaigning been affected? To find out I interviewed several current and former members of Congress. Here is what they told me:

>Former Congressman Michael Barnes of Maryland

Mike Barnes represented a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., from 1978 to 1986, when he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. He has a mild-mannered mien, but he is passionate about campaign-finance reform. These convictions were solidified by his 1986 experience as a senatorial candidate, when raising money was a constant preoccupation. "There was never a waking moment that I was not either raising money or feeling guilty that I was not," Barnes said. He now practices law in Washington.

As I spoke to political consultants, they all said I should not even consider running for the Senate if I weren't prepared to spend 80 or 90 percent of my time raising money. It turned out that they were absolutely correct. That's an absolute outrage, because the candidates should be talking about the issues and meeting with constituents and voters and working on policy questions.

As a congressman, I had plenty of phone calls from political directors of PACs, in which the conversation went something like this:

"Mike, we're getting ready to make our next round of checks out and just want to let you know that you're right up there at the top. We really think we can help you with a nice contribution."

"Gee, that's great. Really appreciate it. Grateful to have your help."

"Oh, by the way, Mike, have you been following that bill in Ways and Means that's going to be coming to the floor next week? It's got an item in there we're concerned about--the amendment by Congressman Schwartz. You know, we'll be supporting that and we hope you'll be with us on that one. Hope you'll take a good look at it, and if you need any information about it, we'll send that up to you."

That conversation is perfectly legal under the current laws of the United States, and it probably takes place daily in Washington, D.C. It is an absolute outrage! You know, if that conversation took place with someone in the executive branch, someone would go to jail.

I remember standing on the floor of the House one night when we were voting on the issue of regulations affecting the funeral industry, which were, in my view, eminently reasonable. The funeral industry was opposed to this regulation. A rumor swept across the floor of the House that anybody who voted against the regulation would get $5,000 from the industry PAC for his or her upcoming campaign. I don't know if that rumor was true or not, but it flew around the place. Everybody was sort of laughing about this. There's not a doubt in my mind that the rumor had an effect on votes. I was standing next to a guy who, as he put his card in the machine [that registers representatives' votes], said, "You know, I was going to vote against the industry on this thing, but what the hell, I can use the $5,000."

During the months preceding an election, I would say that more than half the conversations between congressmen relate to fundraising. "How are you doing with your fundraising? Will you stop by my fundraiser? God, I'm having a tough time getting money out of X--do you know anybody over there that could help? Do you have access to a rock group or a movie star that could help me with my fundraising?" More often than not the question is not "Who's your opponent?" or "What are the issues in your race?" It's "How much money have you raised?" Money permeates the whole place.

>Former Senator Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland

Mac Mathias's moderate stances often enraged more conservative members of the Republican party.

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