Washington — With the campaign season in full swing, I asked a few lobbyist friends - yes, this being Washington, some of my best friends are - to save up their fundraising invitations. One industrious lobbyist collected a week's worth - and messengered over about 150 solicitations.
This stack held, he estimated, fewer than two-thirds of the invitations that had arrived for him and his colleagues.
Everyone knows that members of Congress have to spend ridiculous amounts of time raising money. Everyone knows that lobbyists have to give ridiculous amounts of money to members of Congress - and spend ridiculous amounts of time helping them raise even more.
But flipping through the blizzard of round-the-clock check-writing opportunities offered a glimpse of the frenzied desperation of politics today, in which success is measured by the ability to devise clever new ways to wring more cash out of the same old crowd.
Every event is opportunity
In this culture, a politician's birthday is just another chance to extract checks from lobbyists: My bundle included six such events. "In lieu of gifts, tickets are $1,000 per person," said the invitation to South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham's birthday lunch, just in case you were thinking of buying him a tie.
There's scant pretense here that the check writers are interested in anything but what the check collectors can do for them. Most invitations helpfully list the lawmaker's committee memberships, and those on the appropriations committees invariably put that fact in boldface type.
Still, it's not just cocktails and steak anymore. My invitations included golf fundraisers, sailing fundraisers, "Spamalot" fundraisers and - it's a new world, guys - a "Member Moms Spa Evening" of massages, manicures and pedicures with three Democratic congresswomen. They ran the culinary gamut, from a cooking class at Teatro Goldoni ($3,000 per couple) with head chef Fabrizio Aielli - and, oh, yes, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif. - to Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's "Second Annual SPAM Breakfast." (They served it in omelets.) Farther afield, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., held his second annual "Napa Valley Wine Tour," Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., offered a trail ride at a Wyoming dude ranch, and Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., dangled a Miami "weekend get-away" at the Ritz-Carlton in South Beach.
The fundraising grind
To read these invitations is to feel some sympathy for what these folks have to go through to get elected. Rep. Mark Kennedy, a Minnesota Republican running for an open Senate seat, had a fundraising lunch June 15 with White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten at the Oval Room. On June 22, former congressman Bob Livingston, now - what else? - a lobbyist, hosted a lunch for Kennedy at his lobbying shop; that night Kennedy was back on the fundraising circuit, joined at Bistro Bis by Sens. Rick Santorum, Pa., and Mel Martinez, Fla. The next week it was lunch with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and 10 other GOP senators.
Bemoaning the relentless scramble for campaign cash is, of course, nothing new. "Because of rising campaign costs, politicians have been forced to follow a never-ending money chase," lamented political scientists David B. Magleby and Candice J. Nelson in their 1990 book, "The Money Chase."
Magleby and Nelson were upset about the 1988 campaign, in which congressional candidates raised a total of $407 million for their races. By the 2004 election, that number had tripled, to $1.2 billion, and the chase seems even more frantic this cycle. The latest numbers have receipts up 13 percent.
Stop the madness
The fundraising madness inspires two main reactions. The first is to deny that it presents any problem and to say that more money simply enables more political speech - a good thing. This fails to take into account, even in the most benign view, the enormous drain on politicians' time or, in the more cynical assessment of what is going on here, the skewing effect of campaign checks on policymaking.
The second is to insist that the only real cure is to provide for full public financing of campaigns. This may be correct, but it is, at present, irrelevant; I'd bet on humans landing on Mars first.
In the meantime, some have argued for preventing lobbyists from making contributions - a suggestion greeted with delight by most lobbyists I know. I'm uncomfortable with that solution, which poses serious constitutional concerns.
Rules could help
But a combination of beefed-up disclosure and tighter rules could help. Lobbyists ought to be required to report not only how much they've given to lawmakers but also how much they've collected for them. And if lawmakers can blast-fax invitations to every lobbyist in town, why can't they be required to include copies in campaign filings?
More fundamentally: Bar lawmakers from using campaign funds to dispense cash to other politicians, directly or through party committees. Abolish "leadership PACs" - the slush funds that let lawmakers double-dip from contributors (they collect for personal campaign accounts and their PACs). This change would eliminate the pernicious House practice of essentially auctioning off committee chairmanships and leadership posts to the most prolific fundraisers.
"When you're able to raise $1 million or $2 million it means you're spending a lot of time raising money and not a lot of time legislating, and there's something wrong with that," says Illinois Republican Ray LaHood. "Then you get back to the idea that you elect leaders because you think they can do a good job, not because they can give out a million dollars."
That would be a start.