Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) has a sad story to tell about how he lost a friend in Washington.
"I came here in 1998. I served with a guy named Jim Maloney. He came here in 1996. I would say, 'Jim, why don't we get together tonight and go out?' He'd say, 'I'm in a swing district and I gotta go make phone calls.'
"I didn't get to see Jim a single night," Larson told the Huffington Post. "Here's a guy who never got to take a breath, and who ultimately lost a very close election when the district was redrawn."
Maloney was spending his nights "dialing for dollars" -- sitting in a room with a phone, going down a list of potential campaign donors and asking them for money one after another. It's to put an end to constant fundraising that Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, is pushing the Fair Elections Now Act, a bill to provide for public financing of congressional campaigns. It's got 106 cosponsors in the House.
"If we can get a system that's based on small donors that takes the big money out of the process, there's a value to that. It frees up your time," Larson said. "It borders on insanity when you think of the time and energy that's devoted to the money chase instead of serving your constituents, instead of spending time on issues."
Members of Congress, if they want to keep their jobs, have to drum up ever-larger amounts of money to pay for increasingly expensive campaigns. In 2000, when Larson ran his first campaign as an incumbent, the average winning campaign for a House seat spent $849,158, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2008, the price of admission rose to $1,372,546. But Larson said the amount of time a congressman has to spend to raise all that money, either by dialing for dollars or attending fundraisers, has increased tenfold since he first took office.
Exactly how much time that means, Larson wouldn't say. A 2000 study found that 43 percent of House candidates spent at least a quarter of their time raising money. (The Huffington Post makes an effort to cover some of this fundraising as it happens.)
Aside from the amount of time spent shaking the money tree instead of learning about policy or working for constituents, there's the small matter of where that money comes from.
"You can see how no matter what the circumstance," Larson said, "no matter how much you follow the letter of the law, you can see how easy it is to draw a bright line from a donor to a member to something that passed in Congress and say, 'Aha!'"
Even a guy who supports campaign finance reform has to finance his own campaigns, and Larson acknowledges a "tinge of hypocrisy" among supporters of the bill who still want to keep their jobs. (Check out some of Larson's fundraisers this year. He said he missed most of the food at his a cooking class event, but had a great time at Rep. Rush Holt's "Jeopardy in DC" party. "You try to come up with ways that are not just your down-and-dirty show up and collect a check," he said, though he doesn't "know anyone who really likes it.")
Larson said he couldn't think of a particular instance when campaign contributions affected policy.
"It's not that anything we do is corrupt," he said. "The system is completely legal and lawful, but it's corrosive."
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