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)