W ASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is on a mission to limit campaign contributions, make them more transparent and reduce the incentive for lawmakers to be influenced by those contributions.
Such a quest might seem odd from the Colorado Democrat, who once served as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where he spent a large part of his time in a role that required significant fundraising.
“My short time in the Senate and at the DSCC has reinforced my belief that Washington is broken, and our corroding campaign finance system is one of the root causes,” Bennet said.
With next year’s U.S. Senate race on the horizon, fundraising will be key in what likely will be an expensive race. Bennet already has raised more than $2 million just in the first quarter of the year.
On Tuesday, he introduced a bill that would ban members of Congress from soliciting lobbyists for campaign contributions while the body is in session. He has been working on reforming the nation’s campaign finance system since 2010, when he was first elected. The measures rarely made it to the floor for a vote. But as Bennet pointed out, the absence of action is what is responsible for the public’s all-time low approval rating of Congress.
“The unlimited, unchecked and anonymous spending has paralyzed Congress,” Bennet said. “It has been unable to tackle the big issues, whether it is reforming the tax code, updating our energy policy or fixing our immigration system.”
Bennet joined Congress via an appointment in 2009. The next year, he had to race to keep his seat. Five percent of his campaign was self-financed – his opponent, Ken Buck, was nowhere close to matching him in fundraising.
With the 2010 Citizens United decision, political action committees are allowed to accept unlimited contributions from corporations and unions. In 2010 alone, Super PACs raised more than $89 million to spend supporting or opposing candidates. In 2014, that number exceeded $696 million, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Washington, D.C.-based consumer-rights think tank Public Citizen, said more than $10 billion could be spent on the 2016 presidential and congressional races.
“Citizens United has wreaked havoc on Capitol Hill and the integrity of the legislative process,” Holman said. “Members are expected to spend 50 percent of their time if not more on fundraising. It’s the Wild West out here; money means everything.”
Bennet knows the strains of fundraising. Those close to him say it was difficult for the senator to balance legislative work and his duties at the helm of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. His role as chairman of the DSCC also required him to drive members of his party to increase their fundraising efforts. Lawmakers often are encouraged to spend at least four hours per day fundraising.
“At the height of it, there were days where he was up and on the floor at 8 a.m. and going ’till 9 o’clock at night,” said Adam Bozzi, a Bennet spokesman, who has been with the office since the senator’s appointment. “It’s hectic; it’s really hectic. It’s a lot of travel; it’s a lot of work. We just had to find ways to balance his legislative work, his DSCC role and time with his family. He was glad when it was over.”
Nick Penniman, executive director of Issue One, which focuses solely on campaign finance reform, said lawmakers have lost their focus.
“They spend most of their time talking to wealthy individuals, most of whom are not even in their district. It’s a huge distraction,” he said.
Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that most of Bennet’s financial support has come from New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Bozzi said Bennet is focused now on his own campaign. He added that like all members, the senator still spends dozens of hours per week fundraising.
No high-profile Republican has yet emerged to challenge Bennet in 2016, though state Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango said she is considering a run. Bennet’s seat is seen as one of the most vulnerable, and the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee already has launched attacks against him.
Bozzi said the drain of the fundraising itself is not the main reason for Bennet’s push for campaign finance reform.
“It’s the impact on governance that’s really affected him. Coming to an agreement to avoid the cliff seemed like an opportunity to break through the paralysis in Congress, but it didn’t happen,” Bozzi said, referring to the universally unpopular 2013 automatic federal spending cuts.
“Politicians are a lot less likely than they once were to compromise and work together if they know they may become the target of a Super PAC,” Bennet said. “If we really want Washington to work, we have to clean up the campaign finance system.”
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, is skeptical of laws limiting campaign contributions. But his office indicated that he might support measures calling for disclosures of donors.
“Congressman Tipton will be looking to ensure that those measures are consistent with the constitution, maintain freedom of speech, encourage civic discourse and enhance transparency,” said Josh Green, a Tipton spokesman.
Bozzi said Bennet maintains the optimism he felt coming into the Senate: “He has to be optimistic or else he probably wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.”
email@example.com. Mariam Baksh is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.