David Bruining

Behind Congress's Money

Behind Congress’s Money


  Running for congress is extremely costly. Which begs the question, where do our congressmen get their campaign funds from?  How, if at all, is it regulated? In America, any citizen can contribute to a political candidate’s campaign. There are also action committees called PACs and Super PACs that contribute to specific candidates or political movements.  The Federal Election Commision (FEC) is the federal oversight for all campaign finances. The FEC administers and enforces the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) that governs the financing of federal elections.  The majority of Americans are not informed on campaign finances, and while it is not a priority to know these things, we citizens should know that the system is flawed, and it needs to be fixed as soon as possible.

There are 2 congressional processes: a primary and a general election.  The primary is known as a ‘Money Primary,’ where a candidate must raise funds for his or her campaign for the general election.  These funds come from the aforementioned contributions, but mainly from a fraction of the population so small, it does not even make up 1%.  Only around 150,000 citizens gave the maximum contribution allowed for a single campaign candidate: $2,700. What’s more, in 2014, only about 22,000 citizens gave the maximum contribution over the course of a campaign (both in the primary and the general election): $5,700.  Not to mention, only around 100 people gave more than half of all the Super PAC money in the last Presidential election.  This tiny, tiny fraction of the American people control the politicians.  They are the ones most important to our congressmen: on average, congressmen spend 30-70% of their time in office attempting to accrue funds for their next campaign.  They’re spending the majority of their time sucking-up to the 0.053% of Americans that get them re-elected. This is true inequality in America, and it’s just when congress is in office.  


When we look at what happens locally, when legislators are looking to rerun, we find corruption in the gerrymandering process. On each election year, roughly 85% of the US House of Representative seats are ‘safe sets.’  This means that incumbents, congressmen who were just in office and are running again, are not worried if an opposing party were to run against them because the majority of people in his or her district will vote for the incumbent party. The state legislator can secure this by rearranging or redrawing where the districts are located, called gerrymandering.  What these incumbents do have to worry about, however, is if an even more radical candidate on their side were to run against them.  So what does the incumbent (Candidate A) do to stop this?  He starts focusing more heavily on what the radical candidate (Candidate B) is focusing on!  Candidate A starts talking to the same donors that Candidate B is talking to, in an attempt to draw more funds.  Candidate A now has to appeal to those donors, becoming more extreme through all-the-while; thus, feeding the process.  The incumbent stops worrying about what his constituents care about and begins to focus on what–or who–will get him elected.  This is the exact opposite of what our Founding Fathers would have wanted.  The sad truth is that it is all legal. The candidates are simply playing by the rules, playing the system.  The system has becomes corrupt, thus so have the politicians.

This was not always the case, even though most politicians have always been solipsistic.  The moment that the US congress started to fall apart, in a very dramatic and interesting way, was when Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1995.  This was the first time Republicans have taken control of the House in over 40 years. Congress is now exceptionally competitive, and the elections are fierce: every side wants more seats and, obviously, the Democrats want to regain control.  Gingrich became a perpetual fundraiser because of this, stating that the GOP needed to start raising unprecedented amounts of money in order to protect themselves next election; the Democrats simply followed suit. It became a game of which side can make the most amount of money, even the unspoken rules for committees changed. A chairmen no longer needed to be the most experienced, he just needed to be able to raise the most about of money.  The Democrats, more so than the Republicans, shifted their focus from ‘what are the policies that our members care about?’ to ‘what are we going to do to make sure that you, as a member, reach your fundraising target?’ Many have a hard time believing this because the Democratic Party was always seen as the more open-minded side, the side that valued the people over the cost. Since 1995, the institution became focused on the re-election cycle and not on serving its people.  

K Street, known as the center for lobbyist in Washington D.C., may also have aided in this corruption.  Jim Cooper (D-TN, 5th district), first elected in 1983, says that Capitol Hill has become a type of ‘farming league’ for K Street.  Basically, members of congress go in with honest intentions but become obsessively focused on raising money–and making it.  They become truly focused on how one goes from Capitol Hill to being a lobbyist, where the real money is. A member of congress earns as much as a first year lawyer while lobbyists can make upwards of 10 times that amount.  Cooper says that the institution has become so focused on the money that it is simply an institution for buying and producing influence. This influence can be sold as long as the congressmen continue to suck-up to the people that want to buy influence.  When congressmen move to become lobbyists themselves, they become the people that want to buy this influence. And they know how to do it. They know how the system works and they can play it accordingly. Congress is on the move towards making money and not accurately representing We The People.


From the standpoint of the principles that America is supposed to uphold, Washington D.C. has become a grotesque place. D.C. and surrounding areas are some of the wealthiest places in the US.  The lobbyist and politicians of privileged D.C. are not privileged because they are great businessmen, or famous inventors, or have worked incredibly hard in a competitive marketplace and succeeded.  They are privileged because they have leveraged influence in a corrupt system and profited from it. The less influence we give lobbyist, thus the less influence we give money in elections, thus the less influence money has over our politicians. Although what is the alternative? Both good and crooked politicians have to play this game.  Even the ordinary congressperson knows that, given the way the system is right now, he or she must obsessively raise money. These congressmen almost have to change their viewpoints and change what they push for in order to help raise money. They have to do what is best for the donors, no longer what is best for the people in their district.  For example, Leslie Byrne (D-VA, 103rd Congress) was told when she first stepped into office by one of her colleagues to “always lean to the green.”  Byrne went on to explain that her colleague was not an environmentalist. Needless to say, stacking up the money is more important than being a true servant leader.  Without the donors, the politicians wouldn’t be in office. As simple and as clear as that.

10 years ago, if someone would bring this issue forward, most would dismiss it.  They would say things like ‘we just need to focus on getting the people we want in office, the people we know are good, and then we will get the policies we want passed.’  Looking at the system now, it seems like a very hopeless moment, yet one of the most hopeful ever. Because now people are realizing that they are not getting what they want passed, after years of electing who they thought were wholehearted, good politicians.  The legislators, now, are having the hardest time representing the people who got them elected in the first place.

This may not be the most pressing issue out there right now–one might think that climate change, health care, or border security takes priority. Although, until we fix this broken congress, nothing else can happen.  What we as Americans need to see is that this is not the most important to handle right now, but it is the first issue that should be handled right now.  If we cannot fix this, we cannot fix anything.  There is a bill to be presented on the Congress floor: H.R. 1.  It is one of the most ambitious and comprehensive political reform packages that D.C. may ever see.  It’s benefits include public funding of congressional campaigns (to eliminate the 30-70% of wasted time trying to raise money), a mandate to end gerrymandering (political partisan gerrymandering, emphasizing congress’s power to tell the states to clean up this mess), an ethics package (to block the revolving door of congressmen running off to be lobbyists), and a restoration of the Voting Rights Act.  This bill is the facelift that campaign finances ultimately need.

The fundamental fact is this: if we change the way we fund campaigns, we can change the way America is represented.  No more will it be run by lobbyists and big corporations. No more will there be a need to buy influence. No more will there be inequality in the citizen’s representation.