Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services panel, was in a rush to recess a lengthy markup so he and the other lawmakers could make it across the street to the Capitol for evening floor votes.
But Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., pleaded for a few seconds to squeeze in his comments before the gavel.
Even though Hensarling reconvened the markup just after those votes, Scott had somewhere else to be. “Thank you, because I have a fundraiser I’ve got to get to right after,” Scott said in a moment of candor that sent the room into surprised laughter.
Scott’s spokesman Michael Andel noted in an email that members are in town about 2.5 days per week. “That’s not a lot of time to do much of anything,” Andel said.
The episode on June 10 offered a rare glimpse into the reality that members of Congress of both parties face, especially in an election year: the constant tension between raising money to keep their jobs and actually doing their jobs.
The dash for cash is nothing new to elective office, but with the increasing costs of campaigns and the ever-bigger potential threats of outside money flooding into races, lawmakers over schedule their short work weeks in D.C. to hit up stakeholders and lobbyists from dawn until dark.
“There are only so many hours in a day, and when you have to spend an increasing amount of those asking people for cash, something has to give,” said Adam Smith, spokesman for Public Campaign, which advocates for public financing of elections. “And what gives, I think, is the job you’re elected to do.”
The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform recently released a report that seemed to conclude much the same. Led by ex-lawmakers-turned-K-Steeters such as Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, the commission’s June 24 report found members “spend too much time fundraising, which crowds out the time for legislating.”
“The commission decries the inordinate amount of time that members of Congress spend raising money and worry about the effects of such fundraising on the legislative process,” the report stated. “In particular, we fear that the need to raise ever-increasing amounts of campaign funds is crowding out the time that members have to engage in legislating and government oversight, the job they were sent to Washington to perform.”
The bipartisan group recommended Congress set up a task force styled after the 9/11 commission to make policy suggestions, and urged Congress to pass legislation requiring more disclosure of outside political money. The group also suggested Congress impose new restrictions on leadership political action committees, including limiting the funds to political, not personal, activities.
As much as lawmakers may complain, many of them privately, about the crush of pressure to raise money and the need to fork over donations to colleagues to help them advance in party or committee leadership in a sort of pay-to-play process, Congress seems to have little appetite to revamp the system — at least for now.
But the current way makes for a grueling schedule. House Republicans alone, for example, have 10 fundraisers scheduled on Wednesday, while House Democrats have at least five on the docket, according to party committee lists emailed among lobbyists. Senators also have several events on the docket.
That day, lobbyists and lawmakers can start things off with a breakfast at Bullfeathers benefiting Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y. And they could end the day in a bipartisan way with a reception for Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., at Legal Seafoods in D.C.
To say nothing of the legislative work taking place on the Capitol campus.
Of course, the overbooked lawmakers and unpredictable congressional calendar can make life plenty difficult for lobbyists, too, who are trying to oblige members’ requests to hold fundraisers.
“Many of these events are scheduled weeks or months in advance, and you just don’t know what the voting or committee schedule will be like,” said Michael Herson, who runs American Defense International and hosts fundraisers. If an event is on the Hill, lawmakers usually can pop in, even briefly, between votes or committee meetings. But when the event is across town, the guest of honor may not make it at all.
But even the best of plans could be easily waylaid. “Votes could blow up the entire event,” Herson said.
Kate Ackley is a staff writer at CQ Roll Call who keeps tabs on the influence industry.