Justice

A Republican Congressman’s Surprisingly Smart Plan To Keep Lawmakers Away From Their Donors

CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

Being a member of Congress is an awful job.

One reason that it is a terrible job is the piles of money a lawmaker must raise if they hope to keep their job after the next election. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) once estimated that the average senator spends two-thirds of their time fundraising. Retiring Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) estimates that he’s “spent roughly 4,200 hours in call time” and “attended more than 1,600 fund-raisers just for my own campaign” since he was elected to Congress in 2000.

On Tuesday, Rep. David Jolly (R-FL) rolled out a proposal to, at the very least, mitigate the impact of fundraising on members of Congress: banning all members from personally soliciting campaign funds. Under Jolly’s proposed legislation, which he calls the “Stop Act,” lawmakers and candidates would still be allowed to attend fundraisers and communicate with donors, but they could not specifically make the ask for money. “If the American people understood how much time their representatives were expected — in some cases required — to spend raising money, it would shock their conscience,” Jolly told the Tampa Bay Times, adding that some members of Congress spend 30 hours a week dialing for dollars.

Jolly’s bill addresses an oft-ignored side effect of a campaign finance system that forces lawmakers to become professional fundraisers. Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United v. FEC, which place rigid limits on campaign finance regulation, are often criticized because they foster corruption by making lawmakers beholden to high-dollar donors. But even setting aside the corrupting effect of money on politics, our current system also produces lawmakers that are ill-informed and poorly prepared to do their jobs. Every minute a lawmaker spends raising money is time they cannot spend educating themselves about important policy issues, interacting with constituents who are not donors, or actually working to pass legislation. Meanwhile, the time lawmakers spend actually doing their job distracts them from the fundraising they must do in order to keep their job.

It is unlikely that Jolly’s proposal would be upheld by the current Supreme Court. Although a 5-4 Supreme Court upheld a similar restriction on judges and judicial candidates personally soliciting funds in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, that decision relied heavily on the uniqueness of the judicial branch. “A State’s interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of its judiciary extends beyond its interest in preventing the appearance of corruption in legislative and executive elections,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority, in an opinion that also held that someone seeking to defend a solicitation ban “faces a demanding task” under the First Amendment.

Nevertheless, two justices who were in the majority in Citizens United will be over 80 years-old when the next president takes office. That means that if a bill like Jolly’s proposal passes in the future, it could face a very different Supreme Court that is more bothered by the consequences of turning lawmakers into fundraisers.