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Netflix for Democracy

Dialing for dollars takes up way too much time for members of Congress. AOC has found a way around it.

January 17, 2019

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) once put it bluntly: Campaign fundraising has become an incredible “time suck” for lawmakers. It’s a bipartisan problem. Both political parties insist that freshmen members do as much “call time” — dialing through lists of potential donors begging for campaign cash — as some telemarketers on top of their legislating duties. 

Now, it looks like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has said no to this bootlicking dollar-grubbing culture. Her chief of staff tweeted last Friday: 

For most members, fundraising is becoming an ever-steeper hill to climb. Incumbents in the House and Senate raised $486 million in 2000. By 2016 that number had nearly doubled to $909 million — far outpacing inflation. Members don’t have to report how much time they spend on fundraising, but leaks to the press have indicated that the parties expect new members to budget four hours a day of call time, plus an hour a day for fundraisers, which can be anything from a breakfast to a cocktail hour to a pass-the-hat potluck to a $1,000-a-plate gala dinner.

“Both parties have told newly elected members of the Congress that they should spend 30 hours a week in the Republican and Democratic call centers across the street from the Congress, dialing for dollars,” Rick Nolan, a Minnesota Democrat who retired from Congress this year, said recently, adding: “The simple fact is, our entire legislative schedule is set around fundraising.”

In 2013 — not an election year, keep in mind — the reporter Ryan Lizza happened to overhear a freshman Democratic member of Congress doing call time in a public space for two and half hours straight and live-tweeted what he heard. “I now understand the case for public financing of congressional elections,” Lizza wrote at the end. 

Every hour spent dialing for dollars is one that can’t be spent crafting policy or hearing from constituents. 

How is AOC able to say no this pervasive culture of nonstop fundraising? For one thing, with the press following her every move, she can get her political messages out for free. But more important, she can rely on a loyal base of small donors. Coming into the 116th Congress, Ocasio-Cortez had the highest percentage of small donors ($200 or less) of any member of Congress, at 62 percent. 

Following up on Chakrabarti’s tweet, she wrote: 

Instead of sitting in a cubicle dialing for dollars from a list of big donors, Ocasio-Cortez, like some other grassroots-funded lawmakers, asks her supporters for a small donation monthly, which she compares to a Netflix subscription. 

This approach fits a youth culture where younger voters use their smart phones for everything but conversations. Cold-calling a millennial for money is likely to be a waste of time.

Of course, not every member can build that network of small donors right away. That’s why we sorely need reforms like public financing — part of the sweeping package of democracy measures that made up Democrats’ first bill of 2019 — which can give ordinary Americans a much louder voice in campaigns right away. 

But let’s also hope more members copy AOC’s approach. Three dollars a month for a clean member of Congress? It’s less than most of us drop on a single cup of coffee at Starbucks. Netflix, but for democracy.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.