A few lawmakers recently worked with “60 Minutes” to expose the worst-kept secret in Washington: Members of Congress are pressured by their parties to spend more time fundraising than doing official work. The duo — a two-term congressmen and a veteran member — had the same reaction when directed to spend 30 hours a week raising money: We are done dialing for dollars. It is time to get back to work.
Think about this for a moment: The officials we entrust with making laws that govern our country are directed to spend more time in a cubicle, calling vested interests and big donors, than they do leading our country. It’s no wonder they struggle to find compromise on handling the national debt, or even allocating funding to combat the spreading Zika virus.
Perhaps even worse: Reporters, congressional staffers and retiring lawmakers treat this as business as usual or simply claim that Washington is broken and kick the can down the road to the next election cycle.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress have a tremendous opportunity this year to listen to the majority of Americans who repeatedly say this is a problem and to focus on meaningful political reform. These same voters are flocking to presidential candidates Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, in part because they have all taken strong stances against crony capitalism and the overriding influence of money in our elections.
Has it always been this way? No! U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, Minnesota’s son and public servant, did not recognize Congress when he returned to the U.S. Capitol in 2013 following a 32-year break. Speaking to “60 Minutes,” he said, “the Congress of the United States is hardly a democratic institution anymore.”
Why? All the money in politics.
So he reached across the aisle to Florida Republican Rep. David Jolly to take a meaningful first step and send a message to both parties: Put the phone down and get back to the job you were elected to do. It is probably not a coincidence that Nolan has come out so vocally on this issue, since he is one of only two “Watergate babies” left in Congress. Certainly, we ought not to repeat history.
Outside of Washington, this is not a partisan issue. According to the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of liberals and conservatives say money has more power than ever before. When asked, Americans said they fear corruption of government officials more than anything else, including bioterrorism or economic collapse. We, the people, have lost faith in our elected leaders, and it is time to change that.
As a former Minnesota governor and a former member of Congress from Minnesota, we are aware of what it takes to build consensus and break with your political party to do what is best for your constituents. We are also aware of the pain involved in bucking your own party or established political leadership. Public service requires our full attention. Nothing in government is easy, and that includes balancing the budget, managing finances at the state or federal level, and cleaning up our rivers and public parks.
The ability for Congress — and our country — to lead on the world stage is now at stake because we have a part-time Congress in a full-time world. This is an issue that transcends partisan politics. When 3 out of 4 Americans believe the wealthy have the best chance of influencing the election process, something is fundamentally broken. We are in a crisis in need of immediate attention.
We can rebalance the scales of power and free members of Congress to lead again and focus on why they sought higher office in the first place. They need to find bipartisan and bold solutions to this problem. They should agree to work when the average American works. Taxpayers pay their salary because it’s one of the most important jobs in the country. They were not elected to be telemarketers. Congress should enforce laws equally and support watchdogs to ensure that government is not picking winners and losers. Members also should support their colleagues who call out against a broken system when they see it.
Americans revere leaders who have the political will to face problems head-on. It is time for Congress to once again lead.
Arne Carlson was governor of Minnesota from 1991 to 1999. Gerald Sikorski was U.S. representative for Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District from 1983 to 1993. Both are members of the ReFormers Caucus of Issue One, a nonprofit dedicated to campaign finance reform.