SALINA, Kan. - A college friend of mine, a conservative Republican from Chicago, is a proponent of publicly funded federal elections. When pressed a couple years ago he succinctly explained his reasoning. Under such a system members of Congress would arrive in Washington beholden to the citizens who elected them instead of the special interests that currently elect our congressmen.
This conversation came back to me last November as my civic club listened to our congressman speak over lunch. By coincidence, that same day the congressional Super-committee in Washington announced that they had been unable to reach agreement on a plan to cut the nation's deficit. As we filed out that afternoon another individual remarked to me, "What you heard here today was a demonstration of the problem."
The comment stayed with me, and I felt compelled to define the "problem" to which he referred. One member had asked the congressman if he could think of anything they (the two parties) might be able to agree on in the next few months.
My reflections led me to the following definition of said problem. Congress is largely dysfunctional because it is dominated by ideologues controlled by special interests, who as a result are unwilling or unable to compromise to solve the nation's problems. Campaign finance reports shed further light on this thesis.
Congressional campaign finance reports can be viewed by anyone these days on the website www.fec.gov. I naturally started by looking at the report of my own 1st District congressman, Tim Huelskamp, a Republican, and that of 2nd District Rep. Lynn Jenkins, also a Republican, since the latest redistricting map floating around shows my city moving into her district.
For the 4th quarter of 2011 Huelskamp raised $138,028. A whopping fifty-three percent of all the money he raised, $72,986, came from PAC (Political Action Committee) donations. Only one of his fifty-six PAC donations came from an entity listing an address in his district. Twenty-three listed a Washington, D.C. address, and the rest came from eleven other states. A sampling of PAC's that gave the congressman between $2500 and $5000 last quarter alone would include Koch Industries, Honeywell International, Alston and Bird, and the Build PAC.
Jenkins, who is in her second term, has further mastered the art of PAC fundraising. In the 4th Q of 2011 she raised $225,522, with 58.8% of the haul, $132,750, coming from PAC's. Once again her report shows only one PAC donation from an address in her district (out of her total of 93 PAC donations). Thirty-nine donors listed a D.C. address, with the rest coming from eighteen different states. Five thousand dollar donors include the Prosperity PAC, American Seniors Housing Association PAC, the Freedom PAC, and the Waddell and Reed PAC.
Kansas doesn't have any Democratic members of Congress, so I checked on a Democrat from a neighboring state. Democrat Diana DeGette represents a district in the Denver, Colorado area. In the 4th Q of 2011 she raised $141,733, with 51.7% ($73,250) coming from PACs. The affection for PAC money is a bipartisan affair.
I shared these statistics with a local friend and he shrugged them off. Maybe we've become numb to the whole process. One can't blame the members of congress for devoting most of their time to chasing PAC money. That's the system under which they operate. But the result is that we are governed by the individuals who are the most successful raising PAC money. This begs the question. Are we well-served by the compromises they have to make in this process? Members will, at the end of the day, represent those who elect them (i.e. those who fund their campaigns).
I'm not sure if my friend's solution (publicly-financed campaigns) is the remedy. But the cause of effective governance requires a serious discussion of reforms needed to make our system work better for all of us.