Milbank: A novel idea, lawmakers making laws
WASHINGTON – In February, when Rep. David Jolly introduced his quixotic plan to ban members of Congress from soliciting campaign contributions, the Florida Republican had only six co-sponsors.
Then, three weeks ago, "60 Minutes" did a sympathetic piece on Jolly's idea, giving national attention to the scandal of lawmakers spending 30 or more hours a week dialing for dollars.
And now? The number of co-sponsors on Jolly's bill has jumped from six all the way up to — um, eight. No senator has come forward with similar legislation.
Jolly, appearing Monday morning at the National Press Club with his lead Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Rick Nolan of Minnesota, was not surprised. "We've got six more co-sponsors than I thought we might have," he said. It's "a heartbreaking reflection on what the priorities of the Congress are. ... A member's political survival depends on raising money — that's the reality."
Jolly speaks the truth. Lawmakers know what needs to be done to clean up the corrupt system — but nothing happens.
Democrats talk about overturning the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on politics. But that ultimate fix isn't happening soon. In the House, Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., has recruited 160 co-sponsors for his system of public financing of elections — another good idea — but so far he has only one Republican, gadfly Walter Jones (N.C.). Republicans remain reflexively opposed to reform, including the idea of disclosure, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., once championed.
This is why Jolly's idea deserves a look. He calls it congressional reform, not campaign-finance reform. The goal: to get lawmakers to spend more time lawmaking.
"We're here three days a week, and half your time is spent raising money," he said. "In the face of growing crises around the globe, you've got a part-time Congress." This, he said, "is a first-rate scandal."
I've argued for other ways to get lawmakers to spend more time working — returning to the five-day week, cutting travel allowances, ending the corrosive practice of members targeting each other for defeat through party committees. Jolly, now a Senate candidate in Florida, offers another tack.
The Republican Party is predictably opposed. The National Republican Congressional Committee, in a letter to CBS after the "60 Minutes" segment, accused Jolly of peddling "fiction" when he said party officials told him he had to raise $18,000 a day.
Unfortunately, liberals have piled on. Campaign-finance reformer Fred Wertheimer told me the idea "is not going to solve the problem," because those working for the members could still solicit funds. Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor, wrote a piece in the Orlando Sentinel calling Jolly's bill a "cynical example of fraudulent reform" because "all that would change is that congressmen wouldn't have to do the dirty work."
But while Jolly can be accused of election-year gimmickry, he voluntarily refused to solicit contributions for his Senate run. And though the bill wouldn't by itself solve the campaign-finance mess, it could help to improve the woeful political culture in other ways.
Jolly's Democratic sidekick, Nolan, said that when he first served in Congress in the 1970s, lawmakers worked full weeks, giving them time to develop respect for one another and to find common ground.
"If you've already consumed 40, 50 hours of the week in travel and fundraising, there's not a lot of time left over for governing, and we're seeing the results of that," he said. "We're looking at the last couple of sessions of the Congress of the United States as being the most unproductive in the history of the country. Why? Well, if everybody's busy campaigning and raising money, there's no time for governing."
Jolly, a former lobbyist and longtime staffer to the late congressman C.W. Bill Young, continues to agitate. He said he's not paying his $400,000 in dues to the NRCC, and he said "I don't buy the notion" that he needs more sponsors before House leadership grants a hearing on his bill.
Jolly is a potential ally of Democrats on campaign-finance reform, saying that Citizens United "could be revisited" and that "we can do better." Until then, surely more lawmakers on both sides can see the virtue of his cause.
"You think you get elected to represent 700,000 people," he said. "But you actually got elected to be one more marble on our side of the aisle to keep the majority, and to do that you've got to go raise $2 million — and that makes members angry."
Or at least it should.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.