Call Time For Congress Shows How Fundraising Dominates Bleak Work Life

Call Time For Congress Shows How Fundraising Dominates Bleak Work Life

WASHINGTON -- Welcome to town, new members of Congress. Now hit the phones.

For an incoming member of Congress still basking in the glow of electoral victory, it's a message that hits those in both parties hard -- the most direct indication that time in the people's chamber will be a bit different from the version taught in civics classes.

For new Democrats, that message was delivered on Nov. 16, barely a week after the election, at an incoming-member orientation held by the House campaign arm.

The amount of time that members of Congress in both parties spend fundraising is widely known to take up an obscene portion of a typical day -- whether it's "call time" spent on the phone with potential donors, or in person at fundraisers in Washington or back home. Seeing it spelled out in black and white, however, can be a jarring experience for a new member, as related by some who attended the November orientation.

A PowerPoint presentation to incoming freshmen by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, obtained by The Huffington Post, lays out the dreary existence awaiting these new back-benchers. The daily schedule prescribed by the Democratic leadership contemplates a nine or 10-hour day while in Washington. Of that, four hours are to be spent in "call time" and another hour is blocked off for "strategic outreach," which includes fundraisers and press work. An hour is walled off to "recharge," and three to four hours are designated for the actual work of being a member of Congress -- hearings, votes, and meetings with constituents. If the constituents are donors, all the better. The presentation assured members that their fundraising would be closely monitored; the Federal Election Commission requires members to file quarterly reports.

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Congressional hearings and fundraising duties often conflict, and members of Congress have little difficulty deciding between the two -- occasionally even raising money from the industry covered by the hearings they skip. It is considered poor form in Congress -- borderline self-indulgent -- for a freshman to sit at length in congressional hearings when the time could instead be spent raising money. Even members in safe districts are expected to keep up the torrid fundraising pace, so that they can contribute to vulnerable colleagues.

It's miserable business. "What’s my experience with it? You might as well be putting bamboo shoots under my fingernails," said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), a high-ranking Democrat.

"It’s the most painful thing," said Larson, "and they’re no sooner elected and they’re down there making phone calls for the election in 2014."

On Capitol Hill, call time evokes a rare bipartisan accord. "An hour and a half is about as much as I can tolerate. There's no way to make it enjoyable," Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) told HuffPost. "I've never had four hours a day. Not even close to it. I've got work to do. I don't know how anybody could put that much time to it. That'll burn everybody out. Why would you want this stupid job if you had to do that?"

Former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), now a top official at the Center for American Progress, said that the four hours allocated to fundraising may even be "low-balling the figure so as not to scare the new Members too much."

Congress members make the dreaded calls from a room in the office of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or a similar one at the headquarters of the National Republican Congressional Committee. After votes in the House, a stream of congressmen and women can be seen filing out of the Capitol and, rather than returning to their offices, heading to rowhouses nearby on First Street for call time, or directly to the parties' headquarters. The rowhouses, where Larson said he prefers to make calls, are typically owned by lobbyists, fundraisers or members themselves, and are used for call time because it's illegal to solicit campaign cash from the official congressional office. Former Rep. Walt Minnick's (D-Idaho) career in finance enabled him to buy a Capitol Hill rowhouse that he allows Democrats to use for call time. "There's less turmoil and background noise" in the rowhouses compared with the DCCC call center, said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), who retired from office this year.

"I go down to the DCCC usually just to try to brighten up my colleagues who are down there slugging away," said Larson. "I've got to give them credit. People make the most of it. They recognize this is the mother’s milk of what they need to do to try to sustain their campaigns, and it's the only system they have to work with."

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) has largely managed to buck his fundraising obligations, he said, thanks to a safe district and, ironically, to the high name recognition he garnered from his judicial career and subsequent impeachment. But the congressman said the emphasis on fundraising makes more sense for freshmen members of Congress, who are contending with the era of Citizens United and unlimited independent political expenditures.

"I think that’s wise for DCCC to say that to members, and they will be wise in this environment that we’re in [of] Citizens United, to raise money, particularly those who are just coming here," Hastings said. But call time isn't for him. "Yours truly, in 20 years, I have combined -- on behalf of DCCC, DNC and myself -- been to DCCC for call time less than six hours in 20 years. I’m still standing."

Hastings added that if he was forced to spend the majority of his time on fundraising, it would take a considerable toll on his ability to focus on his legislative responsibilities as an elected official.

“It would cause me not to have the basic attitude that I have, and that is that I’m my own man,” Hastings said. “I would feel like I’m hooked, and that’s what happens here. That’s how this institution is run.”

The schedule back in the home district allows for a more leisurely fundraising pace, if only because the day itself is more laid back. Members are only expected to put in a workday of eight hours, three of which are to be spent on call time, three to four on community events, and one on strategic outreach.

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Several members of Congress interviewed for this story said that the time spent fundraising cuts into a wide swath of what could be productive activity.

"It bites into your private life. It bites into your leisure time," said former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is now being considered for a Senate seat. "You shouldn't only do what you have to do, you should be able to read. ... It cuts into time members spend with each other."

"Any member who follows that schedule will be completely controlled by their staff, handed statements that their staff prepared, speaking from talking points they get emailed from leadership," said Miller. "They certainly are going to be asking questions to witnesses at hearings that their staff suggested. If they offer an amendment it will be something that leadership suggested they offer ... to try to give them a little boost back home."

Working a schedule like that as a freshman teaches a member of Congress about the institution's priorities. "It really does affect how members of Congress behave if the most important thing they think about is fundraising," Miller said. "You end up being nice to people that probably somebody needs to be questioning skeptically. It's a fairly disturbing suggested schedule. You won't ask tough questions in hearings that might displease potential contributors, won't support amendments that might anger them, will tend to vote the way contributors want you to vote."

Perriello said that the drive for fundraising winds up containing "an enormous anti-populist element, particularly for Dems, who are most likely to be hearing from people who can write at least a $500 check. They may be liberal, quite liberal in fact, but are also more likely to consider the deficit a bigger crisis than the lack of jobs."

The time spent fundraising, he added, also "helps to explain why many from very safe Dem districts who might otherwise be pushing the conversation to the left, or at least willing to be the first to take tough votes, do not – because they get their leadership positions by raising from the same donors noted above."

Pressure to raise money is intensified by the requirement that members of Congress pay dues to their respective parties. The dues structure varies based on seniority and committee assignments -- the more exclusive of which can carry a hefty price tag. The quality of a committee assignment is directly related to the amount of dues owed, as black-and-white an admission of the connection between fundraising and policy outcomes as can be found.

Dues are often a point of conflict for Democrats, who as of June had paid significantly less than their Republican counterparts. At the time, members of the National Republican Congressional Committee ponied up nearly $6.4 million in dues while Democrats managed to pay only $1.8 million to their campaign arm.

Hastings recalled telling House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a caucus meeting that the dues structure was “unreasonable.” Pelosi responded by telling the congressmen and others in the room that they simply were not raising enough money.

"I know my chief of staff and my fundraiser would like me to be on four to six hours a day," said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a leading House progressive, acknowledging that he could raise more than he does. "But we raise enough to win. I try real hard to raise what we're going to need. Which is a problem, because [then] I can't contribute to everything else. ... There's other things going on, and the consequence of you being on the phone four to six hours a day means that you can't have the opportunity to interact, to learn and try to get your point across on a policy level."

One member of Congress said that the fundraising takes up so much time that members don't even have time to become experts on bills they sponsor. "One thing that's always been striking to me is even the members playing a leading role on specific issues actually could not talk about the issues," said the member, who didn't want to be quoted by name. "They didn't have enough knowledge on their own issues to talk about them at length. I'm probably guilty of that." He recalled one meeting early in his career, where he brought several members together to try to hash out a compromise, just as he had done earlier as a state legislator.

"Staff members were all twitching at the discussion, because their principals were saying things that were just flat-wrong or uninformed or wondering aloud about what the industry practices really were," he recalled. "The staff members of course had a pretty good idea. ... The members were sitting around the table having a remarkably uninformed and unproductive discussion."

But without the DCCC pushing members to raise cash, Grijalva himself may have suffered. In 2010, a Tea Party candidate came from nowhere and almost knocked off the cash-strapped incumbent. The DCCC stepped into spend nearly $200,000 on the campaign, likely helping keep him in his office.

Hastings noted the hypocrisy inherent in the system, which includes a law barring members from raising money while in their official office or the Capitol itself. "They don’t have to go to the DCCC to do it. They can get a cell phone on their campaign, and step outside of this place where you ain't supposed to raise money -- that's all about money being raised -- and make calls," he said. The incongruity is even starker outside the upper chamber, he said.

"I don’t know if you’ve been on the Senate side," Hastings said. "But they go outside and sit in their cars and make calls."

This article was updated with comments from former Rep. Tom Perriello.

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