NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) unloaded about the "soul-crushing" fundraising work required to run a political campaign, speaking at a Yale University conference on Monday.
Murphy's blunt words were meant to pull back the curtain on a rarely talked about, but overwhelming part of being a 21st-century politician. The first-term U.S. senator's decision to discuss what goes on behind the closed doors of "call time" rooms stemmed from his self-described radicalization on campaign finance reform.
"I have gone from a proponent of campaign finance reform to a revolutionary during my time in public service," Murphy told the small audience of political science and law professors and journalists at the "Purchasing Power: Money, Politics, and Inequality" conference.
"Today, more than ever before, the one question you have to ask when you are deciding whether to run for the United States House, the United States Senate is, are you willing to become a telemarketer for 24 months?" Murphy said. "Are you willing to sit on the phone and ask your friends and, just slightly worse than that, absolute strangers to give you thousands of dollars to run for office?"
As campaign costs have increased, politicians seeking a congressional seat are required to raise more and more money both for themselves and for their party. This need for money eats up so much time that lawmakers have all too few hours left for governing. A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee presentation shown to freshman members of the House of Representatives this year, revealed by The Huffington Post, stated that these new lawmakers should spend four hours of each day in Washington on call time -- that is, cold-calling donors to ask for money.
Murphy acknowledged that for each of his prior House campaigns, he dedicated four to five hours a day to fundraising. This calculation did not include time spent at cocktail parties and similar events, but simply the hours in which he locked himself in a room and phoned donors to ask for money. This was not a practice that Murphy enjoyed and, he said, it deters otherwise qualified candidates from running for office.
"The idea of every day mustering the courage to ask for money over and over again from people you've never met in your entire life -- you really have to be the type of person who likes that activity, and if you're not, then you are probably going to sit on the sidelines," Murphy said. Even though, he added, "The skill of telemarketing does not necessarily translate into governing."
The people whom lawmakers like Murphy call are those with a good amount of disposable income. Murphy said that for his Senate race, he would not call anyone who could not drop at least $1,000 on the election; for a House race, he estimated that he would call only donors able to give $250 or more. This filter for well-to-do donors drives politicians to ask for money from -- and listen to the policy gripes of -- just a small percentage of the American public. And that small percentage has different concerns about public policy than the average citizen has.
"I talked a lot more about carried interest inside of that call room than I did in the supermarket," Murphy recalled, noting that Connecticut donors often work in the financial sector where the taxation of carried interest, the income derived from large investments, is a common worry.
Surveys of the very wealthy done by political scientists Larry Bartels, Benjamin Page, Jason Seawright and Martin Gilens have shown that the richest Americans' economic views are much more conservative than those of the broader population. The rich favor cutting social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare, while the rest of the population favors expanding them. The rich see debt reduction as the most pressing issue for the nation; the rest of the country does not.
Yet these very wealthy individuals -- Murphy estimated that the donors he called likely made between $500,000 and $1 million per year -- are the people politicians must talk to for countless hours if they hope to come to Washington. Then they have to keep listening to those people and being concerned about their concerns if the politicians want to stay in Washington.
"They have fundamentally different problems than other people," Murphy said. "And in Connecticut especially, you spend a lot of time on the phone with people who work in the financial markets. And so you're hearing a lot about problems that bankers have and not a lot of problems that people who work at the mill in Thomaston, Conn., have. You certainly have to stop and check yourself."
Murphy suggested two ways out of this trap. One is crowd-sourced fundraising, which is already occurring over the Internet. Murphy stated that his Senate campaign raised $4 million of its $10 million total from donors giving online. That meant he did not have to call wealthy donors to raise 40 percent of his campaign haul.
The second way to curtail the dependence on wealthy donors, and the indirect influence it creates, is a public financing system for campaigns. Murphy held up the system adopted by Connecticut in 2006 as a prime example of how public financing can help realign a legislature to focus more on governing than on telemarketing for cash.
"We have a cleaner system of government in this state where people run based on their ideas, not based on their ability to raise money," Murphy said.
A study by the liberal think tank Demos, which included interviews with Connecticut lawmakers, backs up Murphy's statements. It found that public financing in the state "is bringing more voices into the political system by increasing the number of donors for most candidates, encouraging more people to run for office, and increasing the diversity of those who do run."
Murphy said he doesn't think that Congress is "light-years away from being able to pass" a law establishing a federal public financing system, but that to get there, politicians will need to show the American people exactly how the current system operates.
"We can only do it if policy leaders are able to stand up and tell people the reality of what this job is like under the current rules," Murphy said.