Enough fundraising

January 25, 2001|By Paul Herrnson and Nessa Richman

WITH THE PRESIDENT inaugurated and Congress settling in, Americans may feel we can safely turn our attention away from November's election and take comfort in knowing that those elected will start addressing the many pressing issues facing the country.

Not so fast.

It's true that most new members of Congress are eagerly awaiting their maiden speech on the House or Senate floor. But many can't completely forget the election because they are still paying off debts incurred during their campaigns.

Richard "Ric" Keller, a Florida Republican elected to a House seat in November, has never held political office. After the election, he was $81,714 in debt. One of his first acts upon arriving in Washington in early December was to host a fundraiser. He is hoping that, by starting early, he will be able to retire his campaign debt and raise $300,000 to ward off opposition in his 2002 Republican primary.

Most other members of Congress -- including several long-term incumbents -- are also participating in the money chase. Even the safest incumbents feel the need to dial for dollars to protect their own political futures or to help their party win the ongoing battle for control of Congress in 2002.

Congressional candidates raised a record $803.7 million between Jan. 1, 1999 and Oct. 18, 2000, according to the Federal Election Commission. Contributions from individuals made up 55 percent of the total and political parties and political action committees represented another 27 percent. Candidates provided 13 percent of all receipts for a total of $107.9 million.

Looking at these numbers, you might assume contributors and candidates pay the high cost of campaigns. You'd only be half-right; all Americans pay a price. As the demanding race for political campaign funds in America creeps beyond Election Day, candidates are spending less time governing and more time fundraising.

In fact, according to a new study released by the University of Maryland's Center for American Politics and Citizenship and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, 29 percent of all candidates devote more than a quarter of their time building up their campaign war chests. Ten percent spend more than half their time working to fund their next election.

Critics of the current campaign finance system worry that a fundraising candidate sacrifices independence, not to mention concern for less lucrative constituents.

In 1998, an all-time high of 110 candidates for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives spent more than $1 million campaigning. Nearly 65 percent of all Democratic and Republican House candidates reported spending more than 25 percent of their time raising funds. Most Senate and gubernatorial candidates also spent in excess of $1 million. Nearly seven of 10 major party senatorial and gubernatorial candidates said that they spent more than 25 percent of their time fundraising.

The significance of time spent fundraising is undeniable.

Former President Clinton, while stating that there is "nothing wrong with raising money for the political process" also has said that "the problem is the volume of money, the amount of money, the time it takes to raise." Members of Congress on both sides of the political spectrum mirror his sentiments. One described himself as a "full-time candidate" and another said fundraising "crippled my ability to do my job properly."

We all know that raising money is a serious business for political candidates, but enough is enough. When the time politicians spend raising money begins to crowd out time that should be spent meeting with constituent groups, developing policy proposals and working with colleagues to forward ideas, there must be a substantive change.

New rules for campaign finance have the potential to refocus political candidates on the things that are important to the citizens they want to represent. Meaningful campaign finance reform should enhance representation, accountability and trust in government. It should also make congressional elections more competitive and increase the number of citizens who participate in them, both as voters and donors.

Regardless of the specific package that Congress debates, legislators should focus on reforms that enable candidates to spend less time campaigning for resources and more time campaigning for votes. Of course, reform can only happen if the political will exists to enact it.

Paul Herrnson is director and Nessa Richman is associate director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship, University of Maryland, College Park.

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