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The Search for Political Money: Is it Time Well Spent?

This op-ed was originally published by The Huffington Post.

The skyrocketing amount of money in politics is destroying the ability of public servants to do their jobs. It’s no secret, even the comedian Stephen Colbert has weighed in on the issue. Heretofore, most of the focus has been on the campaign for president where fundraising records are broken every single day. This is an important topic and deserves attention, but in some ways the impact of money in the presidential election process is mitigated by the fact that both candidates will raise and spend roughly equal amounts. Ironically, huge influxes of money in down ballot elections, such as congressional or state house races, are having a greater impact on our political system and deserve at least as much if not more attention.

Consider this: According to FEC data, 1,600 House and Senate candidates raised a combined $884.6 million as of March 31, 2012, a nearly $200 million increase over totals in March of 2008. Campaigns reported $610.6 million cash on hand at the end of the first quarter, a 23 percent increase from just four years ago.

The amount of money and time spent fundraising has been steadily rising for 20 years, but the recent and dramatic spike is a result of the changing landscape of campaign finance. Republican and Democratic legislators are increasing their fundraising efforts for many reasons, but the threat of a Super PAC or other outside organization coming into their district and spending a couple million dollars to defeat them is certainly high on the list. $1 million may not be a huge amount in a national race, but in a small congressional district, it can be decisive.

Consider then the impact this race for money has on a congressman’s daily schedule. Before the Citizens United ruling changed the campaign finance paradigm, certain studies estimated that members of congress spent around half their time (both in Washington and back in the district) raising money. In the new world of deregulated campaign finance, I would be shocked if members of congress are able to devote even half of their daily schedule to the actual job for which they were elected, developing public policy solutions to address the nation’s problems like debt reduction, energy independence, fixing our schools, and building a modern transportation system.

Our system necessitates a never-ending sprint for cash, which demeans the office of a Senator or Congressman and denigrates the professionalism and dignity of our politics. The sad truth is that given the frenetic search for money in federal congressional elections, there simply isn’t enough time in the day to stay competitive in campaign finance and do the actual job of policy making. The volume of money raised is so high that the job has changed from public service to begging for dollars. The American people understand that it would defy the laws of nature to believe that money is given strictly to advance the public good. Entities and people giving money have specific agendas they want the legislator to act on, furthering the image of a corrupt and dysfunctional system. The campaign finance system is a significant reason why only 12 percent of registered voters approve of the work lawmakers do on Capitol Hill.

I remember when I was first elected to Congress, I and many other House members would often go down to the floor of the House of Representatives and just listen to the debate. I may not have had an amendment to the bill or a particular interest in the issue but I always felt that watching policy discussions and witnessing the crafting of laws was an important part of my day. It gave me the chance to educate myself and interact with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Today most lawmakers would tell you that any free moment not used raising dollars is time wasted. The campaign finance competition is that fierce.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats really like the fundraising aspect of the job. One member famously said that, “the only two politicians I know who enjoyed fundraising both went to prison.” By and large our elected officials are people of character who sought to enter public service to do their best for their constituents and their country. The last thing they want to do is spend all their time asking their neighbors, or special interest groups, for money. Congress has the power to bring some sanity back into the campaign finance system. I hope that after the election the American people will demand that Congress make some fundamental changes to campaign finance laws to restore people’s faith in their government and free up some Congressmen and Senator’s time to tackle the many policy challenges that lay before us. America’s political and economic strength depends on it.

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