Representative Jim Cooper catalogs the many dysfunctions of our current Congress and correctly emphasizes the decades of political history that have led us to this point. There is no single politician or party that has created the problem, which suggests that the solutions are systemic as well.
Cooper rightly notes that Congress is “willfully blind to our nation’s worst problems.” While he focuses on the national debt, the same could be said of health-care costs, energy, a declining education system, and the economic security of most Americans. This hasn’t always been true. Over the years Congress has been able to legislate grand-scale programs that have moved our country forward. From Social Security to the G.I. Bill, from building our nation’s highway system to passing the Civil Rights Act, the federal legislative process has been influential, contributing significantly to economic growth and shared prosperity.
Cooper is also correct that in today’s Washington, politics comes before policy, and, as he observes, we “may be losing our capacity for self-renewal.” The election system now includes procedures through which politicians in almost all states pick their voters, rather than the reverse. A politicized redistricting process is just one part of this problem. We are also witnessing a national assault on voting rights by conservatives in nearly 30 state legislatures, which would reduce the number of low-income people, students, seniors, and ethnic minorities likely to vote. Inside Congress, leadership positions now accrue to those who are focused on winning elections. Fundraising skill is more prized in Congress than the ability to build diverse legislative coalitions and generate successful public policy.
The increasing politicization of the entire process means cold hard cash has become more important across the board, as successful campaigning requires more money than ever before. Last year the Republican State Leadership Committee and Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee spent nearly $41 million on state-legislative elections, up from less than $18 million six years earlier. The money was more important than usual, as political control of the current state legislatures leads to greater authority over the drawing of new district lines for Congress in 2012 as well as for state offices. The leading funder of these Committees’ efforts in each of the past four elections cycles has been the U.S. Chamber Commerce, which contributed a total of $11 million. The formal fundraising arms of the House Democratic and Republican caucuses have also grown tremendously. When Cooper first served in Congress, in 1983–84, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $10.4 million. That figure for 2010 was $163.9 million, a better than fifteen-fold increase. The average cost of winning an individual House seat has gone from $263,000 to more than $1.4 million in that time.
In March, amid joblessness, a new war, and a budget crisis, members of Congress hosted more than 300 D.C. fundraisers.
The demand for campaign cash increases our elected officials’ dependence on a relative handful of sources for big checks, siphons time away from careful legislating, and leaves out the most important people of all, ostensibly, in a democracy: the voters. The top donors of federal political money are drawn from the financial sector and other leading business interests (labor-union contributions, while important, are overshadowed by business interests by a factor of fourteen to one). Four of every five dollars come from outside a member’s district. Cooper observes that two of his colleagues missed their swearing-in because they were attending a fundraiser. In March, with a possible government shutdown looming, a new war underway, and fifteen million people still unemployed, members of Congress, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s PoliticalPartyTime.org, hosted more than 300 Washington, D.C. fundraisers—with the election still nineteen months away. Every hour spent fundraising is an hour not spent getting to know fellow members, studying up on the issues, and meeting with constituents.
A first step toward undoing Congressional dysfunction is to attack directly the political-money problem, striking first at each member’s dependence on special interests. Cooper has it right when he suggests that we might be better off if lawmakers took money only from people back home. He is a cosponsor of legislation that would ensure just that, the recently introduced Fair Elections Now Act (H.R.1404). The measure would offer candidates the option of running entirely on small donations supplemented by public funds, enough to win a typical House race. Candidates would qualify for the funds by raising a large number of contributions of a hundred dollars or less from their home states. Candidates who want to spend more money on their campaigns could raise additional small donations which would then be matched by further public money at a four- or five-to-one ratio. This program would allow a publicly funded candidate to compete against a privately funded opponent or against the increased independent expenditures encouraged by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
This wouldn’t cure Congress of all the ills Cooper identifies, but making the voters back home more important in the political process and eliminating the direct reliance of lawmakers on wealthy vested interests would establish a sound foundation for additional reforms.