Time is Money: How to Fix Outrageous Political Spending

Both parties are guilty of putting donors before voters, and it’s killing our enthusiasm for politics. But the solution is simpler than you might think.

The 2014 election is set to be the most expensive midterm in US history. Your Congress is selling itself for $4 billion this year, which is roughly equivalent to the GDP of Barbados. It’s not even shocking any more. Americans simply expect each campaign to be more expensive than then the last, and this is quite likely one of the key reasons voter enthusiasm has hit record lows.

We’re dangerously close to just not caring about politics any more. So what’s to be done?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has an idea. A few weeks ago, Reid called a vote on a Constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to regulate money in politics. When it failed, Reid quickly chastised Republicans and the “Koch brothers and other radical interests that are working ... to buy our democracy.”

Senator Reid knows that a contribution-limiting constitutional amendment is a political stunt designed to bolster Democrats’ good-guy image before the election. With three Supreme Court cases (1976’s Buckley v. Valeo, 2010’s Citizens United, and 2013’s McCutcheon cases) equating political money to free speech, it’s a pipe dream.

Worse, Harry Reid knows he is talking out of both sides of his mouth. Of course the conservative Kochs have outsized influence on America’s political process. But in a haze of selective amnesia, Reid conveniently forgets that hundreds of extremely wealthy individuals hang out on both sides of the aisle. Reid aggressively raises money for Senate Majority PAC, which has spent $39 million on attack ads alone this cycle.

Oy. Where did we go so wrong?

In the war for political money, Democrats fired the first shot. That’s one of the main points Lindsay Mark Lewis—a former top Democratic fundraiser at the DNC—and I recount in Political Mercenaries, Lewis’ first-person, insider tell-all account as a witness to the explosion of money in politics over the last twenty years.

In the book, Lewis recounts how Newt Gingrich’s victory in 1994 devastated the Democratic Party, which lost control of the House for the first time since the mid-1950s. Desperate to win it back, Democrats concluded they had to raise oodles more money. Party leadership—Dick Gephardt (D-MO) and DCCC Chair Martin Frost (D-TX)—instituted mandatory minimum donations to party coffers from members’ campaign accounts, and a mandatory minimum amount of time that Democrats had to spend on the phone raising money. No longer would the party be lead by members with legislative skill, but by those who could bring in cash.

From 1994-2002, political money spun out of control. Democrats set out to woo a national network of extremely wealthy donors who could support the new breakneck fundraising pace. Soft money—unlimited contributions to party committees made in support of fuzzy “issue advocacy” rather than campaigns—ruled.

Lavishing attention on mega-donors comes with opportunity costs, the biggest problem in politics today: Members of Congress from both sides now spend too much time raising money. They hop around the country begging for dollars, when they used to spend that time together, professionally and socially. Congress no longer compromises because its members don’t know or trust one another like they used to. What’s more, they’re beholden than ever before to donor’s rigid, more extreme policy positions.

By 2002, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), himself censured in the “Keating Five” campaign finance scandal in the early 1990s, teamed up with Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) to write a law that tried to limit money in politics. But the McCain-Feingold bill has been a disaster. The new law capped donations to party committees, but didn’t cap billionaires’ appetite to play in politics. Billionaires innovated, and set up outside “527” organizations. By driving money away from the party committees, McCain-Feingold set up a system that allowed outside groups to be unaccountable to anyone but their funders.

Many point to the conservative “Swiftboat Veterans for Truth,” which attacked John Kerry’s military record, as the first billionaire-funded outside group. They’re wrong. Few remember “Americans for Jobs, Health Care & Progressive Values,” the 2003 Democratic big money outside group that went after Howard Dean’s foreign policy record in the primary. Its public face was former Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs.

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Soon after Kerry’s loss in the 2004 election, Democratic billionaires, including George Soros and Peter Lewis, set up the Democracy Alliance, a network whose members pledged to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to progressive causes and campaigns. Democracy Alliance basically gave the Kochs—who have been giving to conservative think tanks since the 1970s—the blueprint for how to directly influence politics in the 2000s.

Money will always be a part of politics, that’s clear. And since capping donations, as Reid’s failed vote proves, is nearly impossible, reform should focus on limiting the time members can spend raising it.

These days, there’s never a fundraising break. In this year’s lame duck session of Congress in November and December 2014, a slew of 2016 fundraising events are already on the books for Democratic Representatives Grivalja (AZ), Maloney (NY), Ryan (OH), Cummings (MD), and Sires (NJ) just weeks after the 2014 vote. How crazy.

The majority of members don’t enjoy doing multiple fundraisers every day for the entire two-year cycle, but that doesn’t stop the pressure to keep raising cash. Political Mercenaries proposes that Congress should legislate an official campaign period during which all political activities—raising money, running ads, knocking on doors, putting up signs—can take place.

One hundred days before the election seems appropriate time limit for a campaign. During that period, candidates can raise and spend all they’d like. And it’s hardly an idea of out left field. Most states and democracies in Europe successfully use a version of this model. It takes the pressure off members to raise money and gives them time and space to do what they were sent to DC to do: run the country through tough negotiation and compromise.

And maybe—just maybe—voter enthusiasm will rebound as a result.

Jim Arkedis is the co-author of the new book Political Mercenaries: The Inside Story of How Fundraisers Allowed Billionaires to Take Over Politics published by Palgrave Macmillan.