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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.

(Image: Shut­ter­stock.com)