The Democratic Party has, for some time, enjoyed uncontested dominance in the debate over campaign finance reform. Yet Republicans have not ceded this debate because of indifference to public indignation. In the wake of several major Supreme Court decisions striking down campaign finance laws in deference to freedom of speech, the GOP has simply not had time to build consensus on policy proposals that both are antiseptic and comply with the First Amendment. As a result, the party lacks ideas on how best to address the abominable fact that both political parties depend deeply on the wealthiest Americans to fund their political messaging and campaign strategies.
It may be old news, but House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia, was reported to have lost his Republican primary partly because of voter outrage over his perceived support for Wall Street interests and big banks. Critics pointed out that Goldman Sachs was one of Cantor’s largest contributors and that he spent $168,000 of his campaign funds in Washington steakhouses.
His loss is emblematic of both parties’ gilded and galling fundraising loop. Republicans and Democrats raise money in nice Washington restaurants from special- interest groups that support their respective agendas, and they use that money to fund election campaigns that promise more advocacy for the very same special interests, at the expense of voters’ broader interests and values. The voters get mad, and the candidates need more money from special interests to win them back. News reports suggest that the Senate race in Kentucky alone could run up a $100 million tab.
Elected officials on both sides of the aisle understand that the demands of fundraising are compromising their abilities to lead effectively. Members of Congress spend more time raising money and less time engaging in legislative business and meeting with constituents than ever before. (At the start of this congressional session, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s daily schedule for members reportedly prescribed four hours of donor call time and one to two hours of constituent service per day.) Democrats and Republicans alike spend as much time as possible rubbing elbows with lobbyists and donors in the aforementioned District of Columbia steakhouses. The difference is that Democrats decry the interplay of money and politics, while Republicans are largely silent on the matter.
In 2000, George W. Bush included in his presidential campaign platform the seed of an idea that, if modified, could hold the key to reining in the pay-to-play atmospherics in Washington: banning “federally registered lobbyists from contributing to Members of Congress, while Congress is in session.”
Scholars may note that such a policy would violate the First Amendment, as the Supreme Court has made clear that political giving is a form of speech and cannot be circumscribed. But if we tweak the language to say a “member of Congress may not solicit political contributions while Congress is in session,” we would have before us a policy proposal that all Republicans could support and that the courts would uphold.
I daresay that every elected official would heave a sigh of relief if this idea magically became law tomorrow. No politician likes endlessly dialing for dollars in a campaign committee cubicle on Capitol Hill. And while the dinners at four-star restaurants can be delicious — who doesn’t love Charlie Palmer’s french fries or the Capital Grille’s lavish seafood sampler appetizer? — it is the rare political soul who doesn’t quickly find the endless parade of pleading dinner dates tedious and mendacious.
If elected representatives were prohibited from fundraising while in session, legislative sessions could be shortened (a longtime conservative objective), giving them more time back in their home districts, where voters and donors could compete for their attention. Of course, there might be unforeseen consequences: Maybe sit-down restaurants across the country would inflate their prices due to a surfeit of lobbyists with expense accounts (franchisers like Applebee’s, Olive Garden and TGI Fridays are sure to support such a ban). Or perhaps the travel industry would see a spike in hotel, private car and even charter plane use across the country.
Republicans, particularly those with White House ambitions, will need a sensible and principled policy proposal to offer in the face of what will likely be a loud (and deeply hypocritical) chorus of Democrats calling for reforms of the campaign finance system. Championing a policy that precludes members from raising money while Congress is in session is a step toward a more egalitarian campaign finance policy that is immediately comprehensible to all voters and potentially transformational to the perception of Congress’s crony capitalism (not to mention Applebee’s).