Politicians Are Crack Fiends for Cash

Tuesday’s post on politicians’ all consuming sense of entitlement was but an introduction to a series on the psyche of the elected official, and why they must not be depended on for reform and progressive change.   The elected official has two primary preoccupations- getting reelected and getting ready to run for higher office.  These two agendas intertwine in the crack fiend-like dependence on raising cash constantly.

It used to befuddle me why safe incumbents were so hell-bent on milking their mailing lists for money and holding fundraisers within weeks of re-election.   One reason is to scare off challengers, be they general election challengers in contested districts or primary challengers in very liberal or very conservative districts.   Though primary challenges usually occur due to a scandal or ideological deviation from the incumbent, Reshma Saujani’s well financed challenge to Representative Carolyn Maloney in New York shows lightning can strike at any time.  One congressional staffer to a very safe liberal explained to me that his Congressman needs to fundraise every year not just to scare off challengers, but to build relationships with those donors for when he needs them.  One shudders to think what “building a relationship” entails when one side is handing cash to the other.

Raising money not only preserves one’s seat, it also prepares an officeholder for taking the next step.  Most seats open quite suddenly.  A death, scandal, or political appointment may create a vacancy in an office at any moment.   A candidate has to be ready with the $3 million unspent from his last race when the moment calls.   Even if the race is not a special election, even ‘regular’ circumstances that would encourage a run for higher office, such as the retirement of an incumbent or changing political winds, requires one to be ready with at least a rolodex of people who can raise money in a hurry.

It is obvious that there are only so many numbers to call and receptions to attend if you’re looking a few million dollars in handouts- wealthy individuals and corporate interests.   The quid pro quo ranges from implied to explicit, but the result is the same.  The question is, what citizens do about it?

Sure, strong campaign finance laws would be helpful, but so are a lot of other things that won’t happen any time soon.   We need to think creatively about how to apply pressure and build awareness. The first wave of elected officials to be targeted with outside pressure should be safe incumbents.   They need to be weaned off of their relationships with donors when they don’t “need” the money.  At town halls, elected officials should pledge not to hold fundraising events during their first year in office.  If you really want to make them look absurd, make them pledge not to hold fundraising events or make fundraising phone calls during their first three months in office!  So much time goes into these phone calls and events that it impedes their ability to legislate and govern, which is what we the tax-payers sent them to do.

(This is the second piece in a series on money and politicians. You can read Part I here)

7 responses to “Politicians Are Crack Fiends for Cash

  1. We have to get term limits on these jokers. Six years for reps, 12 years for Senators, 20 years for the courts. The mandarin class has always been a dangerous class, and impedes progress. History tells us so.

    • Folks can quibble about the exact length of term limits- they should probably be longer than executive limits (8 years) in order to properly check disproportionate executive influence, but there is probably strong support nationally for some form of term limits. That would definitely help. Until then, though, there needs to be a focus on making politicians serve their existing terms properly. That can be done without legislation.

  2. Wouldn’t term limits just force politicians to have to steal under a more limited time frame (which could cause stealing to be done less responsibly) and hurt institutional knowledge?

    • Hey Noah,
      There is certainly an argument that term limits hurts institutional knowledge and diminishes talent pools in local legislatures- see the New York City Council. On the issue of corruption, however, one would think that the longer politicians are in office, the more complacent they become about qui pro quo business as usual. The issue is not so much outright fraud, which occasionally gets caught, but the more routine, implicit exchange of campaign dollars and votes.
      Term limits was raised in the comments, my own take on this issue and all issues is that a change in public attitude can accomplish more than any legislative remedy can- that’s also why we have to think long term.

  3. Without flogging this too much, I think part of the reason to have term limits – length to be decided when I am king for a day – is exactly to move things along, and to cleanse this “institutional knowledge.” If they really had such knowledge and learned from it, we’d have a far better government. But we don’t. We essentially have a mandarin class with mostly minimum qualifications and honestly, while some of these people are smart, most of them are either god awful dumb, or thick as can be. If the president only gets 8 years, certainly 8 for the House and 12 for the Senate isn’t too short. I also think it would encourage people to work together more quickly. That 95% of all incumbents generally are re-elected is a sorry state of affairs.

  4. Pingback: Moving On Up- Pols’ lust for power trumps duties of office « The Bull Moose Movement

  5. Pingback: Legislators In Name Only: So What Do You Do, Exactly? « The Bull Moose Movement

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