“60 Minutes” Segment Highlights “Dialing for Dollars” Conundrum Facing Members of Congress


Here Are Some Solutions Congress Can Pass to Solve Their Own Dilemma 

This past Sunday, the TV show “60 Minutes” featured a segment on the fundraising demands facing members of Congress. 

U.S. Reps. Dave Jolly (R-Fla.) and Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) spoke frankly about the amount of time that members of Congress are expected to spend “dialing for dollars.”  Jolly, who is running for the Senate this November, talked about the STOP Act, a bill he introduced in the House earlier this year.  The bill would prohibit federal officeholders from directly soliciting political contributions.  Elected officials could attend fundraisers and speak to donors, but not personally ask for a donation.

Jolly and Nolan described, and 60 Minutes showed, the small cubicles at the national party headquarters where members essentially function as telemarketers – calling name after name on a potential donor list, focused on meeting their dollar goal for their own reelection campaign, and fulfilling their responsibilities for raising significant donations to the party committees.

Retiring Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), was also interviewed for the segment.  Israel estimates he spent about the 4,200 hours on the phone asking people for money while in office.  He lamented the amount of time members spend raising money, but was very pessimistic about the chances of the STOP Act passing.

All three members bemoaned the time spent “dialing for dollars” and how it takes away from members’ actually doing their job.  Instead of having the time to think through policy and write, to read the bills they vote on, to perform oversight of government agencies, to meet with experts instead of donors, members are on the phones or attending fundraisers.  The fundraising frenzy also results in members spending hours talking with a very small slice of wealthy individuals whose interests are often far different than average Americans. 

In sum, how a member of Congress actually spends his or her time makes for a depressing job description.

Rep. Israel’s assessment of the chances of the STOP Act’s passage is indeed accurate.  It has zero chance of passing the 114th Congress, which is setting records for gridlock.

Who knows, however, what the 115th Congress will look like, and whether it – like the 1974 class of reform-minded “Watergate babies” – will bring in a reform-minded cohort that will make addressing the out-of-control role of money in politics a priority.

If so, this new reform cohort could work on passing legislation to address the fundamental problems in the way campaigns for the presidency and Congress are financed, including new incentives for small dollar donors such as matching funds, tax credits or vouchers.  They could strengthen disclosure requirements.  They could push the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to address the out-of-date rules allowing politically active “dark money groups” to hide their donors.  And they could ensure that the Supreme Court’s assertion that corporate shareholders know about the political activisties of their corporation is in fact reality by directing the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to require this disclosure.

If these steps prove too heavy a lift or will take a few Congresses to pass, in January the members of the 115th Congress could pass new congressional rules governing their own fundraising behavior.  For example, the House and/or Senate could adopt a rule stating that members of that body may not engage in fundraising activities between 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. or when their body is in session.  This rule would build on the existing restrictions which prohibit members of Congress from soliciting campaign funds while in federal buildings and – appropriately – requires members to retreat to the party committee headquarters to grovel for funds.

Current congressional candidates could make a pledge to follow that rule themselves if elected.  They could commit to their constituents that “I’m Working When You’re Working.”

There is no way to know whether such a pledge would gain traction in this election year.  However, given the popularity of Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders – who both have attacked the current system as corrupting – candidates who are looking for ways to distinguish themselves from the status quo might at least consider a way not only to send a message to their constituents, but to create a job worth having.    

Meredith McGehee advises on legislative and media policy efforts.