And because congressmen now expect these ads, and because campaigns have become yearslong affairs, incumbents spend huge amounts of time fundraising instead of working.
The need for incumbents to procure their own war chests further compromises them. They have become far more responsive to lobbyists, interest groups and wealthy donors than ever before. Lobbyists especially — there are thousands in Washington — who can funnel millions of dollars to politicians are granted privileged access to congressmen and are closely consulted on all significant legislation.
Lastly, the promise of a high-paying job with a lobbying firm when a politician (and often members of his staff) leaves office is an unspoken payoff awaiting the cooperative congressman.
The losers in a political system like this are ordinary citizens and the general public interest. Congressmen are simply not free to deliberate issues intellectually, or weigh and compare constituent and national needs honestly. They must constantly calculate the fundraising consequences of their legislative votes.
I want to emphasize that this problem starts with the system, not the politicians. It does no good to “throw the bums out.” Many a new, idealistic congressman has arrived in Washington, only to be turned by the reality that awaits him.
We could repair this system, however. There are straightforward reforms that, if implemented, would meaningfully reduce (not eliminate) the frequency and impact of abuses.
For starters, political donations should be restricted to individual citizens only — no PAC donations, no super PAC donations, no 501(c)(4) donations, no lobbyist donations, and no union or corporate donations. And the donations from citizens should be capped at some fixed amount, perhaps $500 per year, and the donors may not remain anonymous. No other “outside” spending could occur on behalf of a candidate.
Furthermore, lobbyists should be flatly precluded from funding any candidate or incumbent at any time, under any circumstances. And all current and ex-politicians (and their staffs) should be precluded forever from employment at any lobbying firm. “Forever” may seem strict, but it is the only way to prevent mischief, and I am confident that smart ex-pols would land other jobs.