What's Wrong with the U.S. in Two Four-Letter Words

I can tell you what is wrong with this country in two words: Call Time.

Almost everyday — almost every one of the 538 members of the House and Senate slips away from the business of running the country for at least a couple of hours to attend to the business of raising money. And the most ubiquitous form of this is usually referred to as “call time.”

When Congress is in session, call time usually happens with the help of someone like a campaign manager or call director. That person will escort the member over to a cubicle at the Republican or Democratic National Committee, located a short walk from the Capitol, or will meet them at a D.C. residence or a nearby office paid for by campaign funds. And the calling begins.

A good director will dial a number into a cell phone, but before hitting the call button, they will brief the member on who it is they are about to talk to. “This is Bob Johnson — his wife’s name is Rita. He runs the Community National Bank — he maxed out last year — he has only given 1k so far this year.”

A good call director then hits the call button, gives the phone to the member to work their magic — and dials another number into another phone to have it ready for the next call — all while making notes about the call in progress. And they keep repeating the process as quickly as possible until the member has to run off to vote or to a press op or to a committee hearing.

Of course it makes no sense to have a member place calls to working-class people, or the guy who is working three jobs or the kid going to some crummy for-profit tech school because he is priced out of a decent school, or widow living on a pittance, choosing between food and medicine. It would be a highly inefficient use of their limited time calling them to get their “input”. They call wealthy people. Lots of wealthy people. Highly opinionated wealthy people. And ask them what they think. And can they write a check.

According to MapLight.org, U.S. House members raised, on average, $1,900 per day, every day, for an entire two-year term, including weekends and holidays. That’s $1.4 million per House member, on average.

Last cycle, those who have won the more powerful Senate seats raised $7.5 million, on average, or $3,400 per day. Every day. And the fundraising process for the next elections cycle can begin on the day they take office.

And there is a cold and calculating logic to just who gets called. If you sit on the Armed Services Committee, you will be calling executives in companies that do business with the military. If you don’t sit on a committee that deals with agriculture or appropriations, you are pretty much wasting your time calling agri-business moguls.

Most members don’t like it. All the good ones hate it. It feels icky to do it, and it is corrupt and corrupting. But it is the way the business of politics works. And it is nothing new.

In a letter written by John Adams in 1776, he observed that “… Power always follows Property.”

Any time you really want to know why a vote happened the way it did, the single best piece of advice ever given came from “Deep Throat,” the shadowy tipster in the Watergate scandal. “Follow the money,” he told the Washington Post reporters.

You want to know why the FAA shutdown really happened? Follow the money. Look at the nearly $1 million in contributions that Delta Airlines made to Republican members of Congress, hoping to block a measure that would make it easier for transportation workers at non-unionized Delta to start a union and have a voice at the bargaining table.

And then there’s the recent Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case that virtually enshrined the influence of money into law. The Court has ruled that corporations are the same as people and money is the same as speech.

If those Tea Party hobbits really want to do something that would actually make government more responsive to the “people,” they should drop the stupid balanced-budget amendment and put forward an amendment that would simply declare the obvious: “Corporations are not the same as people and money is not the same as speech.” It might be a start to putting an end to Call Time.