ReFormer Tom Petri on Citizens United, dialing for dollars and congressional gridlock

Rep. Tom Petri, a former Republican Congressman from Wisconsin, recently took listener calls on Wisconsin Public Radio. He is a member of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus, the largest group of bipartisan former lawmakers ever assembled on behalf of money in politics reform. Rep. Petri is one of 50 Republicans in the Caucus who believe reducing the influence of money in politics is the core civic issue of our time.

During his interview, Rep. Petri succinctly tied the amount of time lawmakers spend raising money and talking with donors to congressional dysfunction and our elected leaders’ lack of political will to address issues critical to our country’s future.

Brief excerpts below

Host: Why do congressman have to spend hours a day on the phone or schmoozing at events? Why do congressman need so much money?

Rep. Petri (R-WI): In both parties, the way the system has evolved during the years I was in Congress is that if you want to be a committee chairman or a subcommittee chairman, or you want to rise in the influence in the Congress — one of the ways to do that is by raising money for the Democratic or Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. They keep track of that sort of thing, and you’re encouraged to raise money not only for your own campaign, but for the campaign of other people who are in your caucus around the country. That takes a great deal of time, obviously, and it ends up, I think, taking on an unhealthy relationship between people with business before the committees in Congress and the people who are sitting on those committees who are supposed to be representing the public interest.

Host: In your column, Dialing for Dollars Causes Washington Dysfunction, you mention that yet again, another year of gridlock in Washington and you mention that this year the gridlock is over guns and Supreme Court nominees. Talk some more about how fundraising, the dialing for dollars, causes gridlock over guns.

Rep. Petri (R-WI): The fact that you’re spending time talking to potential donors, rather than talking to your colleagues and others who are interested, means that you are unable to spend time to get the background or to work on details of issues that you might actually reach some agreement on. In the past, there were bipartisan agreements in this area and legislation hasn’t passed — I think a major gun reform legislation that came out after the assassination attempt against Ronald Regan and Jim Brady’s near killing did pass on a bipartisan basis and expired after a number of years. It didn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference but at that time, people were able to sit down and do legislation in critically sensitive area like that.

Caller: Should we repeal Citizens United, Congressman Petri?

Rep. Petri (R-WI): The group [Issue One] is working on making a variety of changes with Citizens United and that is certainly one of the long-term goals. But to say there is nothing that can be done beyond repealing Citizens United, which involves a possible constitutional change and all the rest, is to ignore the fact that there are plenty of solutions that we could enact even while Citizens United is still on the books. There are rules that could be enforced and should be enforced by the Federal Election Commission. The fact that they’re not being enforced is being blamed on the Citizens United when really the blame should be placed on the current Congress and on the FEC for failing to enforce the rules that we already have.

You can listen to the full interview here.