By Steve Israel, The New York Times, January 8, 2016
Washington — IT’S now safe to pick up your phones and read your emails. That’s right, I won’t be calling to ask you to donate to my congressional campaign. As I announced on Tuesday, I’ll be leaving Congress at the end of this term — sentimental about many things, but liberated from a fund-raising regime that’s never been more dangerous to our democracy.
In the days after my first election to Congress, in 2000, I attended several orientation sessions in Washington, eager to absorb the lessons of history. I wanted to learn what Congressman Abraham Lincoln had learned, to hear the wisdom of predecessors like John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and Joseph Gurney Cannon. The romance was crushed by lesson No. 1: Get re-elected. A fund-raising consultant advised that if I didn’t raise at least $10,000 a week (in pre-Citizens United dollars), I wouldn’t be back.
The money race began, and I attended political action committee fund-raisers, which are like panhandling with hors d’oeuvres. There were hours of “call time” — huddled in a cubicle, dialing donors. Sometimes double dialing and triple dialing. Whispering sweet nothings and other small talk into the phone in hopes of receiving large somethings. I’d sit next to an assistant who collated “call sheets” with donor’s names, contribution histories and other useful information. (“How’s Sheila? Your wife. Oh, Shelly? Sorry.”)
Since then, I’ve spent roughly 4,200 hours in call time, attended more than 1,600 fund-raisers just for my own campaign and raised nearly $20 million in increments of $1,000, $2,500 and $5,000 per election cycle. And things have only become worse in the five years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which ignited an explosion of money in politics by ruling that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in elections.
I saw the consequences firsthand.
As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, I was invited to glamorous Washington galas, the ones where thousands of eyes make no eye contact, where pupils constantly rove in search of someone more powerful. At one dinner, in 2012, I was chatting with a powerful Republican congressional colleague. Despite the fact that the Democrats were in the minority, our campaign committee had in recent years equaled or surpassed the G.O.P. in fund-raising. My colleague amiably congratulated me and then added, “But in the end our guys will have more super PAC money than your guys.”
He was right. Early one morning, as I was headed from New York to California to stump for Democrats, I received a staff member’s urgent call. G.O.P. groups, she told me, had bought $2 million of TV time against one of our incumbents the previous night. We needed to match them to maintain parity on the air. We juggled dollars, shuffled resources and sent panicked email appeals to our donors that read, “IT’S OVER!!!” and “ALL IS LOST!!!” Luckily, we managed to cover the gap.
Hours later, I landed in Los Angeles. My phone rang. The same staff member repeated the same crisis. Annoyed, I said, “We handled this already!” She responded: “No, Mr. Chairman. The Republicans dumped in another $2 million when they saw our $2 million.”
This isn’t “Shark Tank.” This is your democracy. But as the bidding grows higher, your voice gets lower. You’re simply priced out of the marketplace of ideas. That is, unless you are one of the ultra wealthy.
Democrats in Congress and all of the party’s presidential candidates strongly support campaign finance reforms. In 2010, when our party was in the majority in the House under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, we passed the Disclose Act, a bill designed to help counter the effects of Citizens United, but Senate Republicans stymied it. Representative John Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland, has worked tirelessly with colleagues to pass viable campaign finance measures. As a 16-year veteran of Congress, I’d calculate the probability that the current Republican majority schedules a vote on that bill at: LOL.
There are some small steps we can take. Next week I will attend my final State of the Union speech. I hope that the president will announce an executive order requiring that federal contractors disclose their political spending.
Ultimately, however, the only solution is across-the-board changes in campaign finance. We need “who-gives-what” transparency in real time (not after the damage has been done), shareholder disclosure of all corporate political expenditures and public financing of congressional elections.
But here’s a political fact of life: Not one of these things will be passed by the current crowd in charge. The only hope for reform is to replace the majority that is stopping reform at every turn.
I’ll miss Congress: the history, colleagues on both sides of the aisle, the ability to help my constituents. But on hallowed ground where Lincoln inspired us to oppose slavery, where F.D.R. summoned us after Pearl Harbor, where L.B.J. demanded voting rights for African-Americans, I won’t miss leaving phone messages asking PACs to “max out before the end of the quarter.”
My new “call time” will be spent waiting for a customer service agent to help me decipher a cable bill. Even that will be more pleasant.
Steve Israel, a Democrat, is a United States representative for New York. He is the author of the novel “The Global War on Morris.”