A novel idea

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Dana Milbank

— In Fe­bru­ary, when Rep. David Jolly in­tro­duced his quixotic plan to ban mem­bers of Congress from so­lic­it­ing cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions, the Florida Repub­li­can had only six co-spon­sors.

Then, three weeks ago, “60 Min­utes” did a sym­pa­thetic piece on Jolly’s idea, giv­ing na­tional at­ten­tion to the scan­dal of law­mak­ers spend­ing 30 or more hours a week di­al­ing for dol­lars.

And now? The num­ber of co-spon­sors on Jolly’s bill has jumped from six all the way up to — um, eight. No se­na­tor has come for­ward with sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion.

Jolly, ap­pear­ing Mon­day morn­ing at the Na­tional Press Club with his lead Demo­cratic co-spon­sor, Rep. Rick Nolan of Min­nesota, was not sur­prised. “We’ve got six more co-spon­sors than I thought we might have,” he said. It’s “a heart­break­ing re­flec­tion on what the pri­or­i­ties of the Congress are. ... A mem­ber’s po­lit­i­cal sur­vival de­pends on rais­ing money — that’s the re­al­ity.”

Jolly speaks the truth. Law­mak­ers know what needs to be done to clean up the cor­rupt sys­tem — but noth­ing hap­pens.

Democrats talk about over­turn­ing the Supreme Court’s Cit­i­zens United de­ci­sion al­low­ing cor­po­ra­tions and unions to spend un­lim­ited sums on pol­i­tics. But that ul­ti­mate fix isn’t hap­pen­ing soon. In the House, Rep. John Sar­banes, D-Md., has re­cruited 160 co-spon­sors for his sys­tem of public fi­nanc­ing of elec­tions — another good idea — but so far he has only one Repub­li­can, gad­fly Wal­ter Jones (N.C.). Re­pub­li­cans re­main re­flex­ively op­posed to re­form, in­clud­ing the idea of dis­clo­sure, which Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., once cham­pi­oned.

This is why Jolly’s idea de­serves a look. He calls it con­gres­sional re­form, not cam­paign-fi­nance re­form. The goal: to get law­mak­ers to spend more time law­mak­ing.

“We’re here three days a week, and half your time is spent rais­ing money,” he said. “In the face of grow­ing crises around the globe, you’ve got a part-time Congress.” This, he said, “is a first-rate scan­dal.”

I’ve ar­gued for other ways to get law­mak­ers to spend more time work­ing — re­turn­ing to the five-day week, cut­ting travel al­lowances, end­ing the cor­ro­sive prac­tice of mem­bers tar­get­ing each other for de­feat through party com­mit­tees. Jolly, now a Se­nate can­di­date in Florida, of­fers another tack.

The Repub­li­can Party is pre­dictably op­posed. The Na­tional Repub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee, in a let­ter to CBS after the “60 Min­utes” seg­ment, ac­cused Jolly of ped­dling “fic­tion” when he said party of­fi­cials told him he had to raise $18,000 a day.

Un­for­tu­nately, lib­er­als have piled on. Cam­paign-fi­nance re­former Fred Wertheimer told me the idea “is not go­ing to solve the prob­lem,” be­cause those work­ing for the mem­bers could still so­licit funds. Lawrence Les­sig, a Har­vard law pro­fes­sor, wrote a piece in the Or­lando Sentinel call­ing Jolly’s bill a “cyn­i­cal ex­am­ple of fraud­u­lent re­form” be­cause “all that would change is that con­gress­men wouldn’t have to do the dirty work.”

But while Jolly can be ac­cused of elec­tion-year gim­mickry, he vol­un­tar­ily re­fused to so­licit con­tri­bu­tions for his Se­nate run. And though the bill wouldn’t by it­self solve the cam­paign-fi­nance mess, it could help to im­prove the woe­ful po­lit­i­cal cul­ture in other ways.

Jolly’s Demo­cratic side­kick, Nolan, said that when he first served in Congress in the 1970s, law­mak­ers worked full weeks, giv­ing them time to de­velop re­spect for one another and to find com­mon ground.

“If you’ve al­ready con­sumed 40, 50 hours of the week in travel and fundrais­ing, there’s not a lot of time left over for gov­ern­ing, and we’re see­ing the re­sults of that,” he said. “We’re look­ing at the last cou­ple of ses­sions of the Congress of the United States as be­ing the most un­pro­duc­tive in the his­tory of the coun­try. Why? Well, if every­body’s busy cam­paign­ing and rais­ing money, there’s no time for gov­ern­ing.”

Jolly, a for­mer lob­by­ist and long­time staffer to the late con­gress­man C.W. Bill Young, con­tin­ues to ag­i­tate. He said he’s not pay­ing his $400,000 in dues to the NRCC, and he said “I don’t buy the no­tion” that he needs more spon­sors be­fore House lead­er­ship grants a hear­ing on his bill.

Jolly is a po­ten­tial ally of Democrats on cam­paign-fi­nance re­form, say­ing that Cit­i­zens United “could be re­vis­ited” and that “we can do bet­ter.” Un­til then, surely more law­mak­ers on both sides can see the virtue of his cause.

“You think you get elected to rep­re­sent 700,000 peo­ple,” he said. “But you ac­tu­ally got elected to be one more mar­ble on our side of the aisle to keep the ma­jor­ity, and to do that you’ve got to go raise $2 mil­lion — and that makes mem­bers an­gry.” Or at least it should. Dana Milbank is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at danamil­bank@ wash­post.com.


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