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How to Still the Fundraising Hamster Wheel

Fixing a problem despised by both politicians and voters

Obama fundraiser

Barack Obama speaks at a 2008 fundraiser. Photo credit: Steve Jurvetson/Wikimedia Commons

You know there’s too much money in politics. You know business showers money on congressional representatives who vote their way. You may not realize that U.S. representatives deliberately play coy on certain issues, delaying resolution for the purpose of raising more funds.

Much has been made of the return on investment gained by lobbying. A now-famous study by the Social Science Research Network documented the return on investment (ROI) on lobbying in favor of the American Jobs Creation Act. 96 firms plowed $282.7 million in lobbying for passage and reaped 62.5 billion in tax savings. The ROI math works out to 22,000 percent.

See United Republic’s own graphic on that situation here.

But there’s an ROI in the other direction too – when congressional representatives see an issue they can use for fundraising purposes. If you’ve ever wondered why Congress seems obsessed with certain issues that bear little relevance to most citizens, you may find they’re using the issue to shake the money tree.

Lawrence Lessig examines this in his new book, Republic, Lost. In an interview with the Boston Review, he noted:

“In the first quarter of this year, what was the number one issue that Congress addressed? In the middle of two wars, a huge unemployment problem, huge budget deficit problem, still issues about health care, still no addressing global warming—what’s the number one issue they addressed? The banks’ swipe-fee controversy. Why do you address the banks’ swipe-fee controversy? There is not one congressman who decided to run for Congress because he thought, “I’m going to deal with the problem of the banks’ swipe fees.” It’s only because if you can dance as a congressman with a little bit of uncertainty of which side you’re going to come down on in this controversy, millions of dollars gets showered down upon you because there’s $19 billion on the table depending on how this issue is resolved.”

This is not to say that every senator and representative relishes the opportunity to focus on issues that affect funding. In fact, most of them hate the process of fundraising.

“The only two [politicians] I know who enjoyed [fundraising] both went to prison.” - Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.)

The reality is that regardless of how populist our congressional members are, they are trapped in a system that rewards corruption and punishes earnest reform. Fundraising takes up so much time, little remains for serious deliberation of vital issues. Holding public office is like running in a hamster wheel. Every fundraising cycle – which begins immediately after winning office – means running even faster just to stay in place.

You probably know through personal experience how this works. The American dollar’s value has fallen 30 percent since 2000, and consequently many people have been forced to take second jobs just to make ends meet. Both incumbents and new candidates for public office face the same challenge – they have to work ever harder to raise enough to stay in the game.

If you’d like a more detailed look at how that time is spent, Nate Thames of ActBlue and Ryan Borek of the Take a Stand PAC share their observations.

The problem is systemic and structural. We’ve bumbled along with the setup we have because, paradoxically, cultural inertia has its own momentum. But we also have a cultural convention that says if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The existing system is clearly broken – unless you’re a lobbyist – and badly in need of fixing.

There is a proposed fix: the Fair Elections Now Act. The act levels the playing field by providing matching funds at the level of 5:1 for candidates who raise funds from small donors in their home states. To qualify for matching funds:

  • Contributions are limited to $100
  • House candidates would have to collect 1,500 contributions from people in their state and raise a total of $50,000
  • Senate candidates would have to raise a set amount of small contributions amounting a total of 10 percent of the primary Fair Elections funding. The number of qualifying contributions is equal to 2,000 plus 500 times the number of congressional districts in their state.
  • Qualifying House candidates receive $1,050,000 in Fair Elections funding split 40% for the primary and 60 percent for the general.
  • Qualifying Senate candidates receive $1.25 million plus another $250,000 per congressional district in their state. The funding is split 40% for the primary and 60% for the general election.

There’s more – see the Fair Elections Now site for details.

This is a plan for public campaign financing, paid for with a small percentage of the largest government contracts going to fund Senate races, and 10% of auction revenues from broadcast spectrum funding House races.

Participation is voluntary. This bill can mitigate – not eliminate – dirty money in politics, but it’s a start. And we have to start somewhere.


A seasoned observer of current events and humanity's fitful progress, Kevin McLeod's distinctive view combines optimism with hard-headed realism. Factual assessment (how did we get into this mess?) together with a look at potential solutions (what can we do about it?) and approaches (how do we do it?) define his outlook. Kevin lives with his wife, teenage stepson, two dogs, and four cats in St. Petersburg, FL -- a lifestyle that trained him how to generate order from chaos.

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