Are members of Congress becoming telemarketers?
The following is a script from "Dialing for Dollars" which aired on April 24, 2016. Norah O'Donnell is the correspondent. Patricia Shevlin and Miles Doran, producers.
The American public has a low opinion of Congress. Only 14 percent think it's doing a good job. But Congress has excelled in one way. Raising money. Members of Congress raised more than a billion dollars for their 2014 election. And they never stop.
Nearly every day, they spend hours on the phone asking supporters and even total strangers for campaign donations -- hours spent away from the jobs they were elected to do. The pressure on candidates to raise money has ratcheted up since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010. That allowed unlimited spending by corporations, unions and individuals in elections. So our attention was caught by a proposal from a Republican congressman that would stop members of Congress from dialing for dollars. Given what it costs to get elected today, it's either a courageous act, a campaign ploy or political suicide.
[David Jolly 2014 special election victory speech: Tonight is not about claiming victory. Tonight is about committing to service.]
Florida Republican David Jolly won a special election to Congress in March 2014. Facing a reelection bid that November, he was happy to get a lesson in fundraising from a member of his party's leadership. But he was surprised by what he learned.
Rep. David Jolly: We sat behind closed doors at one of the party headquarter back rooms in front of a white board where the equation was drawn out. You have six months until the election. Break that down to having to raise $2 million in the next six months. And your job, new member of Congress, is to raise $18,000 a day. Your first responsibility is to make sure you hit $18,000 a day.
Norah O'Donnell: Your first responsibility--
Rep. David Jolly: My first responsibility--
Norah O'Donnell: --as a congressman?
Rep. David Jolly: --as a sitting member of Congress.
Norah O'Donnell: How were you supposed to raise $18,000 a day?
Rep. David Jolly: Simply by calling people, cold-calling a list that fundraisers put in front of you, you're presented with their biography. So please call John. He's married to Sally. His daughter, Emma, just graduated from high school. They gave $18,000 last year to different candidates. They can give you $1,000 too if you ask them to. And they put you on the phone. And it's a script.
There are actually scripts for calls. We got our hands on one distributed by the National Republican Congressional Committee to help GOP members invite donors to attend their annual fundraising dinner in March.
It has this useful diagram. If the donor answers the phone, the caller should plug the "unique opportunity to come together with House Republican leadership." If they get turned down, they should remind the donor that "the NRCC did a great deal to help maintain...the majority in 2014." And if they get a yes, there's even an instruction for the caller to "pause and let the donor speak."
It must have worked. That NRCC dinner raised more than $20 million -- breaking records. It was attended by members of Congress, major donors and lobbyists, including this man who was not too happy to see our camera crew.
[Man: Ass ****]
But one successful fundraiser does not let Congress members off the hook. The phone calls asking for money never stop.
Rep. David Jolly: The House schedule is actually arranged, in some ways, around fundraising.
Norah O'Donnell: You're telling me the whole schedule of how work gets done is scheduled around fundraising?
Rep. David Jolly: That's right. You never see a committee working through lunch because those are your fundraising times. And then in between afternoon votes and evening votes, that's when you can see Democrats walking down this street, Republicans walking down that street to spend time on the phone making phone calls.
By law, members of Congress cannot make fundraising calls from their offices. So both parties have set up "call centers" just a few blocks away. This is where the Republicans have theirs.
Norah O'Donnell: So can I go in there?
Rep. David Jolly: I don't think they would let either one of us in here, at this point. Remember I stopped paying my dues.
What Jolly means is that in addition to raising money for their own campaigns, members are supposed to raise thousands of dollars for their parties. That's their dues. If Republican members don't pay up, they can't use the party's call suites. No photos exist of the inside of either the Democratic or Republican centers. But with the help of a staffer, we were able to get into the Republican center with a hidden camera.
About a dozen tiny offices, equipped with a phone and computer line a corridor. This is where members of Congress sit behind closed doors and plow through lists of donors dialing for dollars. Outside in the main hallway is a big board where the amount each member has raised for the party is posted for all to see and compare.
Rep. David Jolly: It is a cult-like boiler room on Capitol Hill where sitting members of Congress, frankly I believe, are compromising the dignity of the office they hold by sitting in these sweatshop phone booths calling people asking them for money. And their only goal is to get $500 or $1,000 or $2,000 out of the person on the other end of the line. It's shameful. It's beneath the dignity of the office that our voters in our communities entrust us to serve.
Norah O'Donnell: But you may not have a job if you don't fundraise.
Rep. David Jolly: I'm willing to take that risk.
A risk because David Jolly has pledged to stop personally asking donors for money. And that's not all. In February, he introduced a bill called the "Stop Act," that would ban all federal-elected officials from directly soliciting donations.
Norah O'Donnell: But, congressman, with all due respect, stopping members of Congress from making phone calls is not gonna fix the entire system.
Rep. David Jolly: Certainly not.
Norah O'Donnell: It's not comprehensive campaign finance reform.
Rep. David Jolly: It is not. This is Congressional reform. It very simply says, "Members of Congress spend too much time raising money and not enough time doing their job. Get back to work. And do your job."
The Stop Act would still allow members of Congress to attend fundraisers. Others could still ask for donations on their behalf. Republican Congressman Reid Ribble has signed on as a co-sponsor of the Stop Act. After six years in Washington, he's going home to Wisconsin at the end of this term.
Norah O'Donnell: You've spent your life running a commercial roofing company.
Rep. Reid Ribble: Yeah.
Norah O'Donnell: And when you came to Congress and heard how much you have to raise to keep getting re-elected, did you want to quit?
Rep. Reid Ribble: Yeah, I did.
Norah O'Donnell: Are you the only one who feels that way?
Rep. Reid Ribble: No. No. If members would be candid, there's a lot of frustration centered around it. And some of this is the result of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened up really corporate dollars into the system. And so, if you want to have your own voice, if you want your voice to be heard as opposed to some outside group speaking for you, you better-- you better do your job and raise enough money that you can.
After the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, a flood of outside money poured in to Super PACs - political groups which are allowed to spend unlimited dollars on ads to support or attack candidates for office.
Norah O'Donnell: The last few years of Congress have been the most unproductive ever.
Rep. Rick Nolan: Yeah, it's unbelievable. I didn't hardly recognize the place when I came back.
Congressman Rick Nolan, a Democrat from Minnesota, is also co-sponsoring the Stop Act. Nolan was first elected to Congress in 1974 but served just six years. He returned in 2013.
Rep. Rick Nolan: It seems like I took a nap and I came back and I say, "Wow, what happened to this place? What's happened to democracy?" I mean, the Congress of the United States has hardly become a democratic institution anymore.
Norah O'Donnell: Why?
Rep. Rick Nolan: Well, because of all the money in politics, in my judgment.
Norah O'Donnell: What has your party said about how members of Congress should raise money?
Rep. Rick Nolan: Well, both parties have told newly elected members of the Congress that they should spend 30 hours a week in the Republican and Democratic call centers across the street from the Congress, dialing for dollars.
Norah O'Donnell: Thirty hours a week?
Rep. Rick Nolan: Thirty hours is what they tell you you should spend. And it's discouraging good people from running for public office. I could give you names of people who've said, "You know, I'd like to go to Washington and help fix problems, but I don't want to go to Washington and become a mid-level telemarketer, dialing for dollars, for crying out loud."
Norah O'Donnell: You're saying members of Congress are becoming like telemarketers?
Rep. Rick Nolan: Well, 30 hours a week, that's a lot of telemarketing. Probably more than most telemarketers do.
The Republican House Campaign Committee would not tell us whether it recommends a specific amount of call time. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee claims it currently does not. But in 2013, at an orientation meeting, new Democratic members were shown a model schedule. It was later published by the Huffington Post.
It suggested representatives should spend four hours a day on call time and just two hours a day on the business of Congress - committee meetings and time on the House floor.
The man in charge of the Democratic campaign committee at the time was Congressman Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York.
Norah O'Donnell: That's more time calling and asking for money than constituent work or floor work in Congress.
Rep. Steve Israel: Very frustrating.
Norah O'Donnell: That's what your message was--
Rep. Steve Israel: Yes.
Norah O'Donnell: To other lawmakers, "Spend more time raising money than working on your constituents' needs or being on the floor of the Congress."
Rep. Steve Israel: Very frustrating. The result of a system that is broken, the result of a system that allows unlimited amounts of money to be spent against you.
Norah O'Donnell: Before Citizens United, about how many hours a day would you have to spend on the phone raising money?
Rep. Steve Israel: I'd have to put in about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, at most, two hours a day into fundraising. And that's the way it went until 2010, when Citizens United was enacted. At that point, everything changed. And I had to increase that to two, three, sometimes four hours a day, depending on what was happening in the schedule.
Israel revealed he's spent more than 4,000 hours on the phone soliciting donations. It's something he won't miss when he leaves Congress at the end of this term. Still, he doesn't support the stop act.
Norah O'Donnell: Do you applaud Congressman Jolly for at least trying to do something on this issue?
Rep. Steve Israel: Look, I'm glad that Congressman Jolly is focusing attention on the issue. I'd rather focus solutions on the issue. And if I believe that his bill was really going to be meaningful, was going to take money out of politics, I'd support it in a second. But it really doesn't. If you asked me on a sca-- to-- to-- make an assessment as to the prospects of passage, one being the president should get ready to sign it and five being it's dead on arrival, I'd put it at a 15. It's not going to pass.
[Rep. Jolly on House floor speech, Feb 24, 2016: I urge you while you are here, before retiring and lamenting the amount of time you spend raising money, co-sponsor the Stop Act.]
Despite Jolly's repeated pleas on the House floor to his colleagues, only six are supporting his bill.
Norah O'Donnell: Why do you just have a handful of supporters for this act?
Rep. David Jolly: I think people are scared to death of their own reelection. There's a lot of people who will see me coming and break eye contact. They don't want to talk about it.
Norah O'Donnell: Isn't this just a convenient way for you to campaign as an outsider?
Rep. David Jolly: Is it politically appealing? Yes. But that doesn't make it wrong.
Jolly is now running for the Florida Senate seat being vacated by Marco Rubio. It's a race that could determine whether Republicans hold onto control of the Senate. We caught up with Jolly at a Blue Jays spring-training game in his Florida district.
Norah O'Donnell: How much is it going to cost to win the Senate seat?
Rep. David Jolly: Boy, some say $100 million. State-wide.
Norah O'Donnell: $100 million--
Rep. David Jolly: That's right. That's right.
Norah O'Donnell: So how can you raise that money if you're not gonna make any phone calls?
Rep. David Jolly: We have a robust campaign team that can make phone calls, that can organize events, that can raise as many resources as we can possibly raise as a campaign team.
At the moment, Jolly's leading most polls against his Republican primary opponents. But he's lagging in fundraising. And that makes his pledge to stop asking for donations look like quite a gamble.
Norah O'Donnell: So what happens if you have not raised enough money, and it's the last week of the campaign, and a Super PAC dumps in millions of dollars that might be distorting your record?
Rep. David Jolly: At the end of the day, if you tell me that the only way to be a United States senator is to raise $100 million in Florida, then I'm not the next United States senator from the state of Florida. And that's OK. It's a shame for the system, but it's fine for me.
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