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.
Richard Hanna, a member of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus, is a New York Republican who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from January 2011 until January 2017.
What was your experience with the role of fundraising and committee assignments?
There are very strict and very easy-to-recognize requirements. You can go up at any Republican gathering at the National Republican Congressional Committee, and there’s a big board. It tells you what your dues are, and chairmen are required to raise substantially more.
Did you pay your dues?
At first I met those dues, but I became so unhappy with the orthodoxy and rigidity of the Republican agenda that I said I was not going to contribute. And I never did after that. I did my work, but I knew that I was limited in my capacity to be chairman of anything. I wasn’t going to pretend and go out there and try to raise money from people I knew to support an agenda that I didn’t agree with.
In what ways did you disagree with the Republican Party?
When I joined the Republican Party 35 or so years ago, it was pro-choice. It was very much involved and committed to the environment and civil rights. Those are not issues they talk about now.
I was one of two congressmen who didn’t support the government shutdown. I’ve never voted against women’s health care. I’ve supported Planned Parenthood. I supported gay rights my entire life. I also was the first Republican member of Congress — and the only one — who came out and said I’d never vote for Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. In fact, I endorsed Hillary Clinton.
What happens when a member of Congress doesn’t pay their dues or help the party with fundraising?
If you don’t raise money for the party, you can pretty much eliminate the idea that you’ll ever be a chair of a committee. It’s the same way in voting. Committee chairs are supposed to vote with leadership. They don’t always, but they normally do. It’s understood that that’s what they should be doing.
Why are committee chairs expected to raise so much money?
When you are a chairman of a committee, it’s a lot easier to raise money because money gives access. Members of Congress want to hear from both sides of whatever the issue may be, but it’s also clear that those who contribute have much more access than people who don’t.
Why is it easier?
I think it’s pretty obvious. They’re in a position of authority. They help determine the agenda.
Some people are worried about special interests coming in and trying to buy access to lawmakers. Other people say that the leaders of committees are in a position to extort the people they regulate. What is your take on that dynamic?
The word extort is probably not as accurate as the simple truth that a person who chairs a committee has a lot of influence, and you don’t have to extort people who are willing to help you. When somebody goes out and says, ‘I’ll do this, if you do that,’ that’s a crime. But I think everybody knows where their bread is buttered.
Why is transparency important when it comes to campaign spending?
We need to be able to know who’s contributing and what their agenda is, so we can understand the facts that are being presented to us and understand if they may have some bias.
How did you see partisanship playing out in Congress?
Instead of having the ability to reach across the aisle and work together, members of Congress get rewarded for being extreme. The question you hear a lot is, ‘Am I going to get primaried if I vote this way?’
The individuals who get elected today in districts that are, say, R+10 or R+15, their dangers come from the right. This threat of being primaried happens on the left as well. The pragmatic center has been gutted. I know a lot of more moderate members who would love to be more moderate than they are.
How did the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision change things?
Citizens United is a huge problem. Because of Citizens United, outside groups like Heritage and the Club for Growth are like Damocles’ sword over your head. They threaten members of Congress that they’re going to come after them if they don’t comply with their wishes in how they vote. These outside groups know where they can go to influence a politician.
How much money does the typical member of Congress need to campaign?
What’s altogether too easy about being a member of Congress is if you vote the company line — the extreme positions that are uncompromising — and you go back and brag about it, you don’t need as much money as a guy like me. Primaries for people who pander are easy.
What measures or policies would you suggest to curb the influence of special interests?
If I could do one single thing, it would be undo Citizens United. Citizens United is a travesty of democracy.
What do you think undoing Citizens United would achieve?
It would take away some of the power of people and groups — like Sheldon Adelson, Heritage and the Club for Growth — to threaten individual members of Congress. And frankly, some of these groups are nothing more than profit centers. They raise money by being extreme, and it’s a business model on both sides.
What’s your take on how expensive congressional races have become?
The money that’s required today is a shame because it almost guarantees that we wind up with career politicians. There really is a political class in this country. You grow up being a legislator in a state legislature, and you gain access to money and people. You’ve got to have money to run for public office. Thomas Jefferson was right. Average people should go to Congress, not the elite.
If you could give advice to someone who was thinking about running for Congress, what would you tell them?
Be yourself. Be prepared to lose. Be thoughtful. Be kind. Listen well. People need to realize that even though our country seems deeply divided, the majority of people are still where we’ve always been. People want a government that creates solutions, that secures their future, that supports those things that make society prosper — education, transportation, good security, fair taxes and low bureaucracy. Run on that, and you’ll be fine. If you’ve got to spew hate to win an election, why the hell bother?
Former Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) 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.