Congress must reform its rigged 'dial for dollars' fundraising system
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When I first came to Congress in 1995, I knew that getting a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives would help me better serve my constituents. From that perch, I would be able to best advocate for the hard-working families in my district, including employees of Oak Ridge’s Department of Energy facilities and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

In my second term, my wish to serve on the committee was granted, and I eventually became the top Republican on one of the Appropriations Committee’s many subcommittees. But with this privileged position, I was also expected to help the Republican Party raise money in return. My so-called “party dues” rose to $100,000 a year to serve in this role on this elite “A” committee, as the top committees in Congress are informally known. Raising this money was seen as a test of party loyalty.

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While the phrase “party dues” may sound innocuous, during the past few years, these fundraising demands have escalated to astronomical levels. What we have now is nothing short of a rigged system wherein the parties force legislators to raise ridiculous sums of money to protect every incumbent. Guess who gives the bulk of these funds? The very interests that congressional leaders oversee.

 

How bad has it gotten?

In his recently published tell-all book, Colorado Republican Rep. Ken Buck (R) exposed how these fundraising quotas have soared. Chairs of the so-called “A” committees — such as Appropriations, Financial Services, and Ways and Means — are now expected to raise $1.2 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). All the while, chairs of the so-called “B” committees — such as the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — are expected to raise $875,000.

House Republicans are not alone in the practice of asking their highest-ranking members to raise large sums for the party. House Democrats have also embraced a similar system, with lawmakers expected to raise significant amounts for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

In fact, new research by the advocacy group Issue One, where I serve as co-chairman of its bipartisan ReFormers Caucus, shows that the top Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the five most influential “A” committees in the U.S. House of Representatives typically transferred between 10 percent and 20 percent of the money they raised for their campaign coffers over the past eight years to the NRCC or DCCC.

This is not a partisan issue: Both parties are misguided to demand this of members of Congress. Congressional committee assignments, including who serves as committee chairs, should be determined by members’ credibility, their effectiveness as legislators, their experience, and their knowledge of the issues — not how much campaign cash they can help the party raise.

The current fundraising demands placed on members of Congress are tantamount to a “committee tax,” which interferes with the work of serving constituents and country. No lawmaker should have to buy a position on any committee in Congress. That’s just wrong.

When members of Congress get out of bed in the morning, they should be thinking about solving the country’s problems, as opposed to how much money they can raise that day. Hours spent fundraising as part of unofficial second jobs as telemarketers for NRCC or DCCC are time and energy diverted away from lawmakers’ legislative responsibilities.

No one likes this system. The people being shaken down hate it. The members of Congress hate it. And the public hates it. The current fundraising system turns lawmakers into telemarketers, soliciting individuals and industries with business before their very committees for cash. House Republicans and House Democrats alike should embrace changes to the official House rules that bar committee assignments and chairmanships from being granted based on someone’s fundraising ability.

In every respectable institution in America, merit, hard work, and effectiveness lead to advancement, but in Congress, dumbing down our leaders to “dial for dollars” during the work day leads to advancement. Even the Cleveland Browns would reject this model for advancement.

The time for Congress to reform this is now. Nothing less than the public’s trust in government itself is at stake.

Zach Wamp served eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2011. He is now co-chairman of the ReFormers Caucus at Issue One, an organization focused on political reform and government ethics, and a consultant to small companies aiming to make government work better.


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