When I showed up unannounced--and
with a video crew in tow--at a couple dozen Congressional fundraisers
on Capitol Hill, I felt as if I were channeling two paragons of contrarian
virtue: first, Diogenes
the Cynic, the
ancient Greek sage who carried a lantern around Athens during the daytime,
looking for an honest man; second, the great sociologist Harold Garfinkel, who in the 1960s pioneered the use
of what he called "breaching experiments," interactions in which
researchers intentionally breach unspoken rules of conduct to reveal
hidden features of our social order.
In my breaching experiment,
the unspoken rule was that you do not show up to a Congressional fundraiser
with a video crew and ask to speak to a member of Congress or their
staff. Even just for two minutes. Even if you are very polite.
Even though all of the money raised is going to be reported to the Federal Elections
posted on their website. You do not ask how much the member of Congress
or candidate expects to raise. You do not even inquire about the suggested
contribution levels--even though those numbers are also available online,
thanks to the hundreds of fundraiser invitations that lobbyists have
leaked to the Sunlight Foundation's website Political Partytime.
Fundraising parties seem to
be proliferating--possibly as an unintended consequence of the otherwise
laudable post-Abramoff reforms of 2007, which banned gifts from lobbyists
to members of Congress, restricted the use of corporate jets by members,
and curbed junkets like Abramoff's notorious Scottish golfing trip.
In his new book, So Damn Much Money, Robert
Kaiser quotes the
prominent lobbyist Lawrence O'Brien III, who says the latest reforms
"have shifted the emphasis over to political fundraising. Now writing
checks and raising money is the simplest pathway to completely legal
personal face time with members and their senior staff."
It all may be "completely
legal," but campaign finance advocates wonder what deals get cut along
with all the big checks. After all, just before his sentencing no less
an authority than Jack Abramoff reportedly said, "I was participating
in a system of legalized bribery. All of it is bribery, every
bit of it."
It may take time to dismantle
what Kaiser calls "the culture of money, lobbying, and self-dealing
that has metastasized over four decades." But a surprising alliance
of good government groups, lobbyists, and business leaders believe this is the moment for sweeping
campaign finance reform. They are rallying
behind bills that
would publicly fund races for the House, Senate, and the presidency.
That would certainly throw a wet blanket over D.C.'s party circuit.
But would it really be so a bad if members of Congress no longer felt
compelled to spend a quarter to a third of their time raising campaign
P.S. About five minutes into
the video, is that you, Michael Moore, gliding into the Wolverine PAC
fundraiser, just as the hotel security guy is turning me away?
Follow Harry Hanbury on Twitter: www.twitter.com/harryhanbury