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The money chase in Congress never ends
Las Vegas Sun


September 19, 2006
Tuesday PM

WASHINGTON -- This is the part of Congress you never see - your elected officials alone in a tiny, drab office with nothing but a desk, a phone and one thing on their minds: money.

Elected officials spend a good chunk of their workweeks outside of their offices. Sometimes they are at their party's headquarters, sometimes they are using cell phones on street corners outside the Capitol. But always, they are dialing for dollars - an activity in which ethics rules prohibit them from engaging at their congressional offices.




Instead of working in their congressional offices, they go in search of money while their staffs work on drafting legislation, helping constituents and cajoling the bureaucracy.

The reason is the escalating cost of campaigns. Members need money to win re-election every two years, and their political parties pressure them to raise money for other candidates, said Meredith McGehee, policy director at Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan organization that advocates campaign finance reform.

The Federal Election Commission said congressional candidates raised $1.2 billion in 2003-04, and are on track to raise more in this two-year cycle. For a typical $1 million House race, a member would need to raise more than $1,000 a day.

That requires far more time than ever before as campaigns increasingly are fought out in expensive television advertisements and party leadership pressures its members of Congress to help the overall cause.

"They spend so much time and energy focused on how to get the money, they don't have as much mental time or energy to spend on the public policy questions," McGehee said. "That's a dangerous development for democracy."

Campaign finance reformers have pushed for years to eliminate private money from the system and turn the country toward publicly funded local campaigns, as is done in seven states .

This year Democratic senators put forward a plan that some reformers hope will get traction in Congress. But as the post-Labor Day election season kicks into high gear, the pressure is on to spend every free moment "making calls."

"It's show time," said Ed Patru, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "If they're not out meeting voters, working the district, they're generally raising resources."

Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada is at a competitive disadvantage. She has to make a seven-minute walk to get to a cubicle at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Sometimes, that's too much hassle, so she opts for cell phone calls from the streets.

"It just happens to be the reality of politics in the 21st century," Berkley said. "We are simultaneously serving while we're running for re-election. You don't have much downtime. I wish it were different."

Berkley's largely Democratic district is considered safe, but still, she has raised $1.5 million this election cycle. Having that much money on hand helps scare away would-be challengers.

It's not much different in the Senate. Despite lawmakers' insistence that fundraising doesn't eat into the time they have for official business, Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, a nonprofit organization working for campaign finance reform, said there is only so much time in the day to do both.

Raising $1 million one phone call at a time takes a lot of time when the maximum an individual donor can give to a House candidate is $2,100 - or $5,000 from a PAC.

Nyhart's organization said polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans support substantial campaign finance reforms, including the kind of private financing of federal elections his group supports. He expects it would cost $6 to $8 per taxpayer - about $1.8 billion - to fund races for Congress.

"People really want to change the political system," Nyhart said. "They really don't feel like their elected officials listen to them and pay attention to the way they want the government to function."


Lisa Mascaro can be reached at lisa.mascaro(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

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