Being in Congress is still about fundraising and voters are tired of it

by Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN), Issue One ReFormers Caucus Co-chair

Members of Congress are getting an earful from constituents in town halls across the country about their passions and gripes with government. But it was a woman protesting outside while waiting to speak with her senator who best summed up voters’ frustration with Washington: “They spend a lot of time with lobbyists and fundraising. We wish they would spend that much time with us — all their constituents.”

As a former member of Congress, I have the same truth-telling luxury as that constituent, but I’m armed with insider-knowledge of the “rigged” political system. To the majority of the 535 lawmakers on Capitol Hill, money and re-election have come to play more prominent roles in the decision-making process than million-person marches, constituent calls or protest-filled town halls. Every member of Congress is guilty of fundraising on the government’s time and taxpayers’ dime.

I’m as conservative a Republican as they come, elected during the 1994 Republican Revolution spearheaded by then-Congressman Newt Gingrich. I earned a nearly perfect record from the American Conservative Union over the course of my more than 15 years in office and scored an A from the National Rifle Association. What I saw beginning in the last few terms of my service (parties prioritizing politics above sound policies) is now normal.

Today, a “former” anything usually means you have less influence than you may have had previously. But as a former member with intimate knowledge of the policymaking process, it’s time to be brutally honest about necessary changes in our nation’s capital by both parties. For too long, the size and scope of our government have ballooned to unsustainable levels, and the resulting “incumbent protection program” means too few lawmakers have the stomach to do anything to fix it. “Drain the Swamp” shouldn’t just be a campaign slogan, but inspiration and guidance for policymaking throughout Washington.

The ugliest truth is that our “representatives” of the people spend as much as half their time raising money. Members of Congress owe the politically-affiliated party committees (the National Republican Senatorial and Congressional Campaign Committees and their counterparts, the Democratic Senatorial and Congressional Campaign Committees) hundreds of thousands of dollars in “dues” each month, raised to protect incumbents and consolidate party power.

Their elections each cycle often cost $1.5 million or more in the House, and $10 million in the Senate, so lawmakers are constantly fundraising. If you chair a committee or serve in leadership, you’re building an even larger war chest.

For example, while I was writing this piece, I received a call from a sitting lawmaker, asking for a donation toward the $325,000 dollars he’s obligated to pay the NRCC every year. When I told him I was writing about that very issue and working to end the pressure to raise ridiculous sums of money — a fiscal “arms race” — he told me he hoped I was successful because he’s tired of it. Case in point!

To make matters worse, these campaign committees are solely motivated by either gaining or maintaining political power in Washington, not fixing the country. The money they raise is spent to protect all incumbents, regardless of whether your elected official is effective, involved in a scandal, out of touch with their constituents, or completely AWOL from their duties. The parties prize power to the exclusion of almost everything else.

This would never be acceptable in business, professional sports, the military, or any institution where results are expected to keep your job or advance in seniority. In Congress, it’s often the opposite: If you can raise the most money, you advance.

This has locked out younger, more pragmatic Americans, many of whom served in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Most of the blood lost on foreign soil in defense of our nation has been given by patriots in their 20s.) Yet members of Congress continue to get older. The average age of a member in the 115th Congress is 58 years old, and there are no current lawmakers between 25 and 31 years of age.

As a 59-year-old who served 16 years in Congress, I have more confidence in the next generation than my own. Younger Americans have everything to lose as the status quo continues. They deserve a chance to lead.

We already see young, organized political supporters from across the spectrum lending their voices to the political discourse in Tea Party rallies and marches throughout the states. But they are too discouraged to run for office. The system must be reformed so new leaders can emerge, and the best place to start is the “incumbent protection society.” It’s time to remind elected officials that our country matters more than their loyalty to a political party.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.