News & Politics

John Oliver Bemoans Political Fundraising, Offers No Alternative

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Money in politics is icky and something must be done to curb it. Just don’t ask us what that something is.

Members of Congress spend one to two thirds of their time soliciting campaign contributions, often at the expense of legislative work. That was the thrust of the story on Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The segment revealed the (sometimes literally) unhygienic manner in which Washington legislators are driven to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. Congressman Steve Israel tells Oliver, “It is, in my view, a form of torture.”

Israel details what that torture looks like:

You have a bunch of cubicles set up, and those cheap fabric dividers. And you sit at a little desk. And you have a phone. And you have an assistant next to you. And you have a call book. And the call book has sheets of every donor, past donors, and their records. And your assistant gets a supporter on the phone and gives the phone to you. And you engage in polite conversation. And then you get to the point. And then you hang up. And then you flip the page to the next donor. And then you make another call. And you continue to keep doing that until you have the resources in order to get re-elected.

For incumbent legislators, fundraising is not just about securing their own re-election. Members of Congress are expected by their parties to raise a certain number of dollars, known as “assessments,” to finance broader efforts to expand and bolster the caucus. Oliver describes the process as “depressing.” He points out that the exorbitant amounts which legislators are driven to raise place them firmly in the orbit of a particular donor class. Senator Chris Murphy expounds:

For a senate race, I’m not calling anybody who doesn’t have the chance of giving me at least $1000. So, you’ve got to imagine that the people I’m calling are, you know, folks that are making half a million to a million dollars [per year]. And, you know, they have fundamentally different problems than everybody else.

That’s a huge problem, says Oliver. And perhaps he is right. But one thing missing from the Last Week segment is any suggested solution.

Congressman Thomas Massie has an experimental approach. He refuses to fund-raise for anyone other than himself. From The Daily Independent:

Every election cycle, U.S. Congressman Thomas Massie said he is “extorted” by the Republican Party to pay $300,000 for his committee assignments.

“I call it extortion, they call it assessments,” he said.

These “assessments,” essentially dues to the Republican party, are fundraised through political action committees and lobbyists as a price to pay for committee positions, Massie told a crowd of about 25 during a recent coffee and pizza forum in Flatwoods.

“I’ve paid them zero,” Massie said, which yielded a scattered applause at the pizza parlor. “It looks like a phone bill they send to me. An overdue notice.”

When asked what party officials do when committee members don’t pay up, a man in the room chimed in to say, “It’s our job to fire you, not theirs.”

Massie smiled and said, “They can’t not make me a Congressman, but they can take all your committees away.”

Indeed, they can. Massie may view that power dynamic as extortion. But in truth, it’s merely a manifestation of free association and self-governance. Massie is not expected to pay a bribe in the sense of handing over a stack of cash that goes in some guy’s pocket for personal use. If that was the arrangement, it could reasonably be described as corruption. Instead, Massie and his colleagues are expected to help the party raise funds which are used to win elections. As the Daily Independent author more accurately describes them, they are dues in the same sense that union members pay for services that they benefit from. You don’t have to pay union dues if you don’t want to. But then you’re going to get treated like someone who doesn’t pay their dues. That’s a perfectly legitimate exercise in free association. To not pay is to essentially say that you don’t care if the rest of the party succeeds, you don’t care about securing and maintaining majorities, and everyone else is on their own. And if that’s the case, why would leadership give you favorable committee assignments?

The “problem” here is the same problem cited in any critique of the market, that those with the gold make the rules. But the only alternative to that arrangement is some degree of tyranny. What is the proposed solution to this supposed problem? Are we going to pass more campaign finance laws? Are we going to somehow take away the caucuses’ capacity to self-govern? Are we going to outlaw political parties? Present a solution that doesn’t violate basic political rights, and it may be worth considering.