Mark Shields: The price of raising political money

Mark Shields

Mark A. Hanna was a wealthy Cleveland businessman who shrewdly laid out the winning strategy and personally, out of pocket, paid all the costs required to secure the 1896 Republican presidential nomination for his fellow Ohioan William McKinley. Sometime after McKinley’s election and re-election to the White House, Hanna, based upon his personal experience, offered this timeless insight: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

The New York Times’ Binyamin Appelbaum has become the latest in a growing number of scholars to argue that political money is not that influential in deciding the winners of congressional elections or even in affecting how the winners, once in office, will vote on policy. We should, Appelbaum writes, be less anxious about cash in campaigns because “over the past year, Americans spent more on almonds than on selecting their representatives in Congress.”

To borrow the immortal phrase of Hollywood’s Sam Goldwyn, “gentlemen, include me out.” Forget the wealthy campaign donors, who — please take my word for it — almost always write their checks not out of altruism but fully expecting a “return” on their “investment.” Instead, think about the typical House candidate, who — just to cover the costs of her campaign — has to raise an average of $18,000 a week, 52 weeks a year, every year. Beyond raising that war chest, if a congressman hopes to rise to a position of leadership within the House or to win appointment to a powerful House committee, then he has to raise money for his party’s campaign committee.

This means going to a cramped cubicle at party headquarters and, several days a week, turning into a telemarketer, calling a list of people, most of whom you don’t know, and begging for money. Because you are provided the information on a sheet, you know what the potential check writer’s legislative and policy priorities are. You emphasize how your voting record is in harmony with the potential contributor’s values, and you are careful to avoid any potential areas of disagreement.

Because the member of Congress does this for hours on end every week, it means that the member is not spending his time meeting with and listening to his constituents or mastering a subject or getting to know personally his congressional colleagues and potentially collaborating on the public’s business.

Beyond all that fundraising lies more fundraising. Why? Because of the legitimate fear that a misnamed “independent” committee, underwritten by anonymous big money, could spend millions against any at-risk incumbent, baselessly defaming and possibly destroying him politically for being sympathetic to child pornographers or worse. The one insurance policy many members of Congress believe they have against that career-threatening “nuclear option” is to stockpile millions in their personal campaign accounts — which means more hours putting the arm on everyone who lobbies you on any issue from school lunches to bridge repairs.

The casualties of the endless cycle of fundraising are, too often, the independence, integrity and ideals of those who become its prisoners, and sadly, there’s an even greater loss of public trust and confidence in our own self-government.

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