An unprecedented anger has been stoked in the American electorate. The Republican Party faces a potential collapse as their fracture lines only continue to grow with the nomination of Donald Trump. Democrats to continue to ignore the revolt and divides in their party that led a 74-year old socialist from Vermont to nearly defeat a former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State. With the two most unpopular Presidential nominees in history, and an unprecedented threat of a third-party candidate the Executive branch seems in no way set up to provide stable leadership in the near future. There has never been a more important moment in recent history for Congress to step up and take a leadership role in our country.
Yet there is one major issue… Congress is broken. A near-coup in Republican leadership caused a leadership crisis that threatened political breakdown. Lack of action spurred Democrats to hold an open protest on the floor of the House itself. The last Congress was the second least productive in history. The federal government was shut down over a moderate Healthcare reform bill. And seemingly endless filibusters have become commonplace. To make the matter worse, the latest polling data shows all-time low approval ratings of Congress. With so many near disasters and crises along both party lines it seems clear that the issues are not with any single member or group but the structure of the institution as a whole. However, as noted by the chord striking slogan “Make American Great Again” things didn’t always seem to be this way. Congress was once an effective governing body capable of passing large pieces of legislation without becoming bogged down in theatrics and grandstanding. However, this reality was dealt a final blow on January 21st, 2010 with the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC that allowed corporations and individuals to spend unlimited amounts of money lobbying for or against a candidate. This revolutionized what it took to run for Congress by drastically injecting more amounts of money into the political system. However, the change wasn’t as nefarious as rich billionaires handing Congressmen money in dark alleys explicitly in exchange for favors. The issue with money in politics is a much more subtle and structural one that can’t be combated even by the most honest politicians with golden hearts. Members of Congress were forced to adapt to keep their jobs. Suddenly they were forced to raise huge sums of money. The cost of a House campaign increased over 300% compared to 1986. In fact, according to Maplight in 2012, a member of the House had to raise on average $2,315 per day with Senate members facing an even larger challenge with an average of $14,351 per day. With such huge sums of money expected of them in order to stay competitive our political system forces Congressmen to spend HUGE amounts of time solely dedicated to fundraising (estimates range from a few hours a day to 75% of their time). Not only does this decrease the amount of time Congress is able to spend meeting with constituents or even simply writing and passing legislation, it changes who is considered an effective Congressman. With fundraising for both your own campaign and for your party becoming more and more the primary role of Congressmen and Senators the individuals we see rising to leadership positions are not the ones who have the best understanding of policy, are the smartest, the most respected or even the most trusted by their coworkers. Instead, Congress is now set up in a way to systematically encourage and support individuals who are good at one simple task, convincing other individuals (often members of the “1%”) and corporations to support them. Charisma is what is rewarded, not leadership and results.
This is the real issue with money in politics. Not some overt corruption or even that rich individuals are given a slightly larger voice in government. It’s that it systematically decreases the importance of traits such as intelligence, honesty, critical thinking, and wisdom in our politics and instead rewards whoever is able to convince people to part with their cash most easily. Until we change this systemic issue in our political system we will continue to see a Congress that is plagued by ignorance, inaction, and gridlock. A Congress that is driven by the rhetoric of donors, not of voters. A Congress that is too busy calling donors to answer our call. A Congress, that is broken.