Behind the Price of Power: Q&A with former Rep. Charlie Bass (R-NH)

To help inform Issue One’s landmark report, “The Price of Power,” we interviewed several members of our bipartisan ReFormers Caucus at-length about their experiences with fundraising and concerns with the “committee tax” imposed on lawmakers.

Every Tuesday and Thursday over the next few weeks, we will release edited excerpts of those conversations with these former lawmakers to supplement and expand on the disturbing picture the report painted: that of a broken democracy, which Congress itself must act to fix.

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Charlie Bass, a member of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus, is a Republican who represented New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from January 1995 until January 2007 and again from January 2011 until January 2013.

You had a couple of different stints in Congress. How would you characterize the campaign pressures over the years?

It was a big challenge because I was always outspent, with one exception. I was not one of those guys who spent a lot of time fundraising. As a result, I usually had to make do with somewhat less than my opponents.

Were there higher costs to campaigning, or more pressure to fundraise, during your later years in Congress?

Well, the cost of campaigns depends on where you are. For me, in New Hampshire, the cost of running a campaign went through the roof over the 20 years or so I was there, on and off, mainly because the cost of advertising skyrocketed. I used to be able to buy two or three weeks of media before the election. But the cost went up and up and up, until finally, at the end of my last campaign, I raised and spent two million dollars — which was about three times what I raised and spent in 1994 — but I didn’t get significantly more coverage for it.

What was your experience with the role of fundraising and committee assignments?

There was pressure to raise money for the party. If you look at the current makeup of the committee chairs, some of them are big fundraisers and some of them are not.

When you were serving on the Energy and Commerce Committee or the other committees you served on, were you expected to raise a certain amount of money for party dues?

Yes, they would assign me a number, but I never once made it.

Were there ever negative repercussions against you because you failed to meet your party dues fundraising numbers?

No, not at all. But I’m a little bit different because I didn’t come from a very safe district. So maybe I wasn’t subject to that kind of fundraising pressure?

One of the things I’ve been reading from various documents that have been leaked or publicized over the years is that the party dues expected by both the Democratic and Republican parties have also been going up each election.

They have, but the cost of elections has gone up.

What do you make of these trends?

My general view is that too much money is raised and too much time is spent raising money, but that’s political survival for a lot of people. There are other people who have safe districts and can afford to raise more money to support the cause. But I think everyone would agree that fundraising takes up too much time. There are very few people who actually enjoy it.

What challenges did you face in terms of committee assignments?

Being pro-choice, pro-gender equality and pro-environment, some of my positions conflicted with those of the leadership. I couldn’t really be on the health or energy subcommittees because I’d never be voting with the Republicans. In the full committee, I didn’t.

What would be a good way to decrease the pressure and the amount of time that members of Congress have to spend fundraising?

I started dealing with this issue way back when I was in the New Hampshire State Senate. I introduced a bill that created voluntary spending limits for candidates, and you got certain perks from the system if you agreed to limit spending — like not having to pay the exorbitant filing fee or getting a huge number of signatures that are all individually notarized. The ultimate issue is that members of Congress should be spending more time in Washington doing their jobs and less time raising money and trying to stay in office.

Why is transparency regarding campaign contributions important?

There are bad players, and frankly I think transparency is what really helps serve as a deterrent. If you get huge quantities of money from, for example, the longshoremen or from IBM and your voting record starts to change to reflect those contributions, that’s problematic. People should be able to assess that.

Why was signing onto the McCain-Feingold discharge petition important for you?

At the time, I thought that McCain-Feingold created real accountability with the advertising on television. All the disclosure stuff was a step in the right direction. The whole idea of saying that you approved of an ad. It demonstrated that campaign spending can be dealt with legislatively, but it needs to be done every few years because things change and conditions change.

Former Rep. Charlie Bass (R-NH) is a member of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus, the largest bipartisan coalition ever assembled on behalf of political reform and government ethics. Read more about “The Price of Power” here.