To Get Ahead in Congress: Skip Governing, Raise Money. Just Look at Aaron Schock. (Politico)

Photo via Associated Press

When Congress returns from recess next week, Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), who resigned after Politico raised questions about his mileage reimbursements, will not return with it. Before Schock becomes a footnote in history, it’s worth reflecting on how he represents everything wrong with the way Congress raises money. The dismissals of Schock as simply a “show horse, not a work horse,” to use the old phrase, misses the more interesting—and disturbing—story.

The rise and fall of Schock embodies the reality of the current campaign finance system. Members are now valued by the Leadership and fellow Members because of their fundraising prowess, not their legislating abilities. Aaron Schock will only be missed in Congress for his ability to raise significant amounts of money for himself and his party. Known for connecting himself and others with big donors, he had little time to do any of the things he was elected to do by his constituents in Peoria, nor paid to do by all of us taxpayers.

The most important reason that the young Congressman was seen as an up-and-comer was that he was viewed by his fellow Members and the media as a rainmaker who was willing and able to shake money from wealthy donors. He reportedly raised almost $11 million in his seven years in Congress. For example, he successfully convinced the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a Super PAC based in Texas, to use $25,000 of its money to help a fellow Illinois Republican who was thrown into a tough battle against another Republican after redistricting. Rep. Schock also headed up “30 for 30,” a campaign to raise $30,000 for GOP lawmakers in their 30s.

In the meantime, his record of legislative achievement in the House can only be described as slim, especially for someone who was named a Deputy Minority Whip upon arriving in the House.

As much as Rep. Schock’s Instagram account provides juicy tabloid fodder, the scandal here is not that he spent political money on a cushy and glamorous lifestyle. If he had been advised by lawyers who knew campaign finance laws, he could have spent all of this money through a leadership PAC and it would not have violated any laws (though that is another story!).

Instead, the true scandal is that he was doing what all "successful" Members of Congress now do—ignoring Congressional grunt work and instead raising money. Schock is far from alone in having become lost in the money-chase, and the five-star travel culture to which he and fellow members of Congress now feel entitled. The only difference is that Rep. Schock made the fateful choice to decorate his office in a Downton Abbey theme and documented much of his lifestyle of the rich-and-famous on Instagram—a mistake others will be well warned to avoid.

Rep. Schock’s primary focus was on campaign money rather than legislative duties. After all, that is where all of the incentives for power and influence currently reside. And they will remain so until the campaign finance system is significantly changed.

In theory, last least, Congress could pass a comprehensive rewrite of the campaign finance laws, but that is not going to happen soon given the captive status of members in the current money-driven system. There are, however, other approaches and possible solutions that are worth exploring in the meantime.

For example, Congress could turn its attention to its own behavior. Each body could adopt rules prohibiting Members of Congress from fundraising while Congress is in session. Or they could adopt of a rule that prohibits Members from soliciting contributions from any industry or entity they regulate from their committee positions. Or Congress could tighten the current “revolving door” laws. Clearly, the current ones fail to prevent Members of Congress and their staff from keeping one eye out for a high-paying job while still serving in the Capitol. 

Another approach would be for Congress to loosen the links between Members of Congress and lobbyists. Lobbyists could be prohibited from bundling for those Congressmen whom they lobby, as the American Bar Association has recommended. Or there could be lower contributions limits for lobbyists and their clients or limits on lobbyist fundraising for political campaigns.

None of these changes is a magic bullet to “fix” the problems that ensnared Rep. Schock nor will they stop the juggernaut of secret money flowing into our elections. But any or all of them could begin to change the dynamic of a broken system. What happened with Schock is an example of how the current campaign finance system increasingly rewards “show horses” to the detriment of our democratic system. Members of Congress need new incentives to actually focus on doing the people’s work, instead of burnishing their fundraising prowess. Changes like these can make a difference now until growing public disgust with the system—or the next inevitable scandal—pushes the nation once again over the tipping point to a comprehensive overhaul of how our elections are funded. 

Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, is president of the Campaign Legal Center, a senior adviser to Issue One, and head of the political law practice at Caplin & Drysdale.

Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and heads McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business.

This piece originally ran in Politico on April 6, 2015. To read it there, click here.