Constant Fundraising: The Other Campaign-Finance Problem

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Lawmakers spend up to half their time asking for cash. How could the system be altered to allow them to research votes, craft bills, and interact with constituents?hundreds full.png

Flickr user A Magill

Every week there are scores of fundraisers attended by members of Congress. Today alone there are eight that the Sunlight Foundation knows about. Nancy Pelosi told This American Life that she participated in more than 400 fundraising events in 2011, a pace of more than one per day. The vast majority of legislators say they dislike asking for money, but research shows that on average they spend at least a quarter of their work time doing it, and sometimes as much as half or more. Imagine how much worse you'd be at your job if in addition to normal duties you spent hours each day raising money to keep it. Advocates of campaign-finance reform often talk about the undue influence that money has on politics, and that is certainly a significant problem. But the amount of time legislators spend asking for money rather than doing their job is itself problematic.

Is there anything that can be done about it?

Consider this a brainstorming session that suspends, for the sake of idea generation, concerns about constitutional challenges and unintended consequences. It's imperative to think carefully about those factors before legislation is introduced, but for now I've aimed for a different standard: I'd defend any of the following as compatible with the freedom of speech and association. Legislators ought to be free to solicit contributions. But what if we restricted how or when?

What follows are three specific ideas. They aren't meant to address campaign-finance problems generally, just to reduce the amount of time legislators spend raising money rather than doing their jobs. 

  1. What if all fundraising solicitations had to be done in writing with a copy of the email or a scan of the physical letter posted online for public perusal? It would be quicker and more transparent than phone calls, less time consuming than events, and afford less of an opportunity for networking between donors and the members of Congress to whom they're giving. 
  2. What if solicitations could only be made on weekends? Or Mondays? Or when Congress is in recess? Or during the first five days of each month? Or if campaign contributions could only be made starting 150 days before an election?
  3. What if all time spent soliciting donations or attending fundraisers had to be accounted for in 15-minute increments, the way lawyers and consultants bill their time, and then shared with the public?

Thoughts? Drawbacks? Unintended consequences? Alternatives? I'll be sure to delve into comments on this one.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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