Let’s assume you’re trying to advance in your company or organization. You’ve been there a few years, learned the day-to-day of your job and, like most people, you want more responsibility. Now imagine if doing so has less to do with your expertise or effectiveness, and more to do with how much money you hand over to a group that’s politically-affiliated with your company.
That’s, increasingly, the career path for a member of Congress.
There’s a phrase for it: “party dues.” They’re what members of the House — and, sometimes, the Senate — are required to deliver to political-party committees as a requirement for both sitting on congressional committees and for seeking chairmanships. Yes, that’s right, the Republican National Congressional Committee (RNCC) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) place fundraising quotas on our elected representatives, and those quotas — which are hidden from the public — heavily factor into who runs our government.
Most voters have never heard of such dues and would likely find the practice completely revolting. Which is why the parties and politicians try to keep it all hidden. Those who do speak publicly about the practice are often ostracized from their party, as was the case last year with Florida Republican Rep. David Jolly (who was abandoned by the NRCC and subsequently defeated in November’s general election). Even getting information about the “dues” is difficult.
I spent the last few weeks calling and emailing acquaintances on Capitol Hill, and all of them were so concerned about sharing information about “party dues” that they either declined to be on the record or were nonresponsive. I felt as stymied as when I was a journalist chasing down a good lede.
Nonetheless, my group, Issue One, has compiled many of the facts in a just-released report titled “The Price of Power.” House Republicans are expected to deliver more than $1.2 million to the NRCC if they are chairs of “A” committees like Appropriations, Financial Services or Energy and Commerce. Rank-and-file committee members of A committees are expected to raise $450,000. Chairs of “B” committees, like Education and the Workforce: $875,000, and B committee rank-and-file: $325,000. House Democrats face similar quotas.
Often, the enforcement of these quotas can be heavy handed. As former Texas Democratic Rep. Martin Frost, a member of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus, said: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi “has really put the hammer down on people and told them they have to pay a certain amount if they’re a committee chair or a certain amount if they’re on a key committee.”
Perhaps the party leaders have to put the hammer down because so many members, rightly, can’t stand that their advancement can hinge more on money than merit. Some of them, especially freshmen legislators, are rebelling against it. They reject the catch-22 of either shoveling money into the political furnaces or potentially being overlooked for leadership positions. Some have even pointed out how perverse the formula is – those lawmakers who have more responsibility on the committee (chairs) have to spend even more time raising money (right when they should be spending more time running the committees).
Colorado Republican Rep. Ken Buck is a good example of a sitting member of Congress who thinks the whole practice needs to be challenged. As a member of the House Committee on Rules, he is expected to “pay” $450,000 in dues. His take: “So you pay dues to a private, partisan organization to serve in government…$450,000 means that a member has to hold receptions in Washington, D.C. Who comes to those receptions with checks? Lobbyists (and) special interests that want something in return.”
It’s that “something in return” which, in poll after poll, pisses people off. It’s part of the reason Trump got elected — to “drain the swamp.” Since 1964, CBS News and a few other media outlets have collected public sentiment reflecting a simple, yet profound, question: “Would you say the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?” In 1964, 30 percent said our government was run by a few big interests; 70 percent said for all the people. By 1990, 50 percent of the public said a few big interests. By 2000 it was about 65 percent said a few big interests. Last year, it was at an all-time high: 92 percent. And, tellingly, 99 percent of people who identify as “angry Trump supporters” agreed with the statement. Furthermore, just last week, a new poll showed that two-thirds of Americans believe Trump has either made the swamp worse or that nothing has changed.
So here’s the scene: Members of Congress scrambling to raise money from the special interests, often ones they regulate, so they can advance on Capitol Hill; party leaders dropping the hammer on those who don’t fundraise enough, exiling those who blow the whistle; and the public, all the while, losing faith in our way of government.
It’s time for people of conscience to come together and remake the relationship between money and politics. We, at Issue One, have already recruited 180 former governors, members of Congress and Cabinet secretaries, nearly half of them Republicans, to serve as the nucleus of such an effort. They’re focused on a four-pronged agenda: 1) Require total transparency of political giving and spending. 2) Delink lobbying and campaign donations. 3) Engage more people in politics by building a system that encourages candidates for office to seek a wide base of support instead of relying on deep-pocketed donors. 4) Put an umpire back on the field, by fixing the Federal Election Commission (FEC). One more will likely be added soon: Make it clear the legislative leadership positions in Congress will not be awarded based upon the six-and-seven figure “party dues” quotas imposed by the political parties, which are not a formal part of our government.
These are simple shifts, really. In the grand scheme of the major challenges America faces, these are easy. They require little or no money; not a single life would be placed on the line, not a single job lost. In fact, the biggest immediate effect would be positive for the very people who need to vote on the corresponding legislation: Members of Congress, who could then spend less time raising money, including less time raising money from the industries they are supposed to be regulating on our behalf.
The only “dues” that members of Congress should feel obligated to meet are to the citizens who elected them, and to the Constitution. Just ask 92 percent of the public.