Last week, a security breach at the White House led many elected officials to question their safety. But for most politicians, their biggest threats aren't masked men with guns. Digging deeper into campaign strategies, funding sources, and what keeps them in office exposes the insidious truths about our nation's lawmakers. By targeting John Kline, a Republican Representative from Minnesota's Second District, Bill Maher's "Flip A District" Challenge sheds light on why this "empty suit" has stayed in office for so long, and why we should all care.
As a college student, I hadn't heard much about John Kline until Maher shone a national spotlight on Minnesota's second district. And why should I? John Kline is an incumbent. He keeps his head down and places his votes. To many, it seems like Kline is doing a pretty alright job -- he's been re-elected five times, after all. Ninety percent of incumbents across the nation win elections, and none of them want to risk lowering that percentage. Some incumbent officials really are true representatives of their districts, and do fantastic work to benefit their constituents. But many incumbents, including Kline, support legislative actions that benefit major corporations instead. These corporations become large sources of funding during campaign season, which enable incumbents to win elections again and again.
In the case of John Kline, for-profit education corporations are footing his campaign bill. The Apollo Education Group, which owns several for-profit educational institutions, is his top contributor for the 2013-2014 legislative cycle. Kline, chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee, has supported laws that would increase student loans through market-based interest rates. Many hold Kline accountable for the college affordability crisis, but he hasn't done much to fix it. Thats strange behavior for a congressman who represents a large student population. St. Olaf College and Carleton College both lie within District 2's boundaries. But money is what wins you elections, and students can't donate the way the Apollo Education Group can.
According to the latest Federal Election Commission Report, Kline has raised approximately three times as much money as his challenger, Democrat Mike Obermueller. The former US Representative ran against Kline two years ago and lost by just eight points. Maher's involvement in the race provides underdog Obermueller with a welcome source extra publicity and attention. However, it provides Kline with a rallying point as well. He's aiming to raise $100,000 to spend for television ads to counteract Maher's campaign. Kline has friends and corporations with deep pockets to support this, but Obermueller doesn't. Maher isn't planning to fundraise or donate any money, which raises doubts about what he will be able to accomplish. In an era of massive campaign spending, (big) money speaks louder than words.
Big money's stronghold on our government is a bipartisan issue that every elected official, including the one selected for Minnesota's District 2, should prioritize. Obscene amounts of corporate spending fuel races for Congressmen who represent the interests of the corporations, not the people who elected them. Big money pays for noisy ad campaigns that distract voters from candidates' action and the real issues at hand. This meteoric rise in funding was fueled by the recent Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which removed the cap on corporate spending in campaigns. But this isn't how politics are supposed to work. Those with the biggest paychecks shouldn't speak the loudest. They drowns out the voices of those who government is really supposed to serve: everyday Americans who are struggling to make ends meet. Campaigns should be publicly funded with real-time disclosure on contributions and limits on corporate spending.
Will the Flip A District project be able to resist the grip of big money on the Kline v Obermueller race? I doubt it. Even if Obermueller somehow raised more money than Kline and was able to win the election, he'd still be indebted to the donors that put him in office. Bill Maher wanted to target "empty suits" in this election cycle. But the suits worn by John Kline, and other incumbents with questionable motives, aren't really empty. Instead, they're filled with money.
This post is part of a series about "Real Time with Bill Maher" 's "Flip a District" initiative. Authors live in the state of the Congressperson whose district the program seeks to "flip." To learn more about Flip a District, visit here.