Why Do Congressmen Spend Only Half Their Time Serving Us?

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A man gazes up toward the dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 25, 2010. The cost of running for office has skyrocketed. Congressmen spend only part of their time doing their job; the rest they spend chasing donations, the author writes. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Imagine ordering your Friday night pepperoni pizza and your delivery man shows up with only six of the 12 slices and yet asks for full payment.

Imagine paying a financial consultant to prepare your taxes and they complete half of your federal forms and still submit them to the IRS.

Imagine going for your annual dental appointment and your dentist drills out your cavity but doesn’t put in the filling. Are you feeling the pain?

We will all feel the pain until our elected leaders work together on a comprehensive plan to make government accountable to, and dependent on, the people rather than big campaign donors.

These scenarios rarely happen in our daily lives, but they accurately describe everyday life on Capitol Hill. Despite a $174,000 salary, members of Congress do the job we elected them to do only “part time.” The rest of the time, they are chasing money for their re-election campaigns.

How much money? The cost of running for office has skyrocketed. Experts predict the money chase will grow to upwards of $10 billion in 2016. That astonishing figure is greater than the cost of the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections—combined.

Beyond the outrageously high price tag, the 2016 election will also be a game changer because of the shift of power away from the candidates as more big-dollar campaign contributions fuel the rise of super PACs and dark money outside groups. According to The Washington Post, “Nearly $4 out of every $5 raised so far on behalf of GOP White House contenders has gone to independent groups rather than the official campaigns.”

In 1990, I raised $850,000 in my campaign for Congress. Between 1986 and 2012, the average cost of a Senate race increased 62 percent; the average cost of a Congressional seat increased a whopping 344 percent. In 2012, House incumbents raised an average of $2,400 per day in the two-year cycle. Senate incumbents raised an average of more than $4,700 per day over six years.

How much of members’ actual time is devoted to “dialing for dollars”? They are generally hard-working, honest, type A personalities, so in a typical 10-hour day, they might dedicate three hours. In election cycles during the heat of battle, it might escalate to more than half of their time.

But it doesn’t stop there. Members are now additionally “required” to raise money for “the party” and contribute to pools of funds at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC). As a member rises in seniority to committee chair or ranking member, their fundraising responsibilities multiply significantly. So just as they assume more jurisdiction, clout and a heavier legislative workload, they are simultaneously saddled with spending even more time raising even more money.

When our legislators spend so much time raising money, the result is dysfunctional government. This directly impacts the taxpayer and makes our government more expensive. Time spent courting major donors is time not spent developing bipartisan relationships with other members, or visiting the Pentagon to find out more about a new weapons system, or traveling to see small businesses in their home districts.

Time spent running after big donors is time not spent figuring out a way to make a government program work more efficiently, writing a bill to create more jobs in America, or participating in an oversight committee hearing to evaluate the current challenges in Syria and Iraq.

Time spent at the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee offices begging wealthy “1-percenters” for campaign funds is time not spent listening to teachers, nurses or farmers in their offices in the House Rayburn or Senate Hart Building.

The direct cost to the public is clear: Elected officials are not able to spend 100 percent of their time on their legislative jobs. The problem is not ideological or partisan. It affects the left and the right, Democrats and Republicans equally, and is costing the taxpayer and driving away many talented public servants.

It is not just in the vital interests of every citizen to fix this highly corrosive and deeply biased campaign finance system; it might be the single best way to make public service more attractive, substantive and rewarding to talented people who long to serve America.

A Civil War general once said that the key to victory in the Western Theatre was the Mississippi River: “It was similar to a giant tree: Whoever controlled the trunk, controlled the upper branches.” Congress, like a giant tree, has been infested with money, and we are witnessing the resulting decay in the legislative branch.

Americans must call on all candidates in 2016 to embrace a comprehensive agenda to end the money chase so that our Congress is once again the world’s greatest representative governing body.

Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) represented Indiana’s 3rd Congressional District from 1991 to 2003, served on the 9/11 Commission and was United States ambassador to India from 2009 to 2011. He is a strategic adviser at Issue One.