July 8, 2019

Call Time is a Time Suck for Congress

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

July 8, 2019

On July 6, 2019, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reiterated that "I haven't dialed for dollars *once* this year..." Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, turned heads when she announced that she would not be doing on the phone fundraising, known as “call time.” This caught my attention too as I had just published a law review article entitled “Time Suck,” which covered this very issue of congressional call time. The fact that AOC is not doing call time is remarkable because most freshmen Members are counseled to do call time or kiss their seats good bye.

Participating in the fundraising arms race is rational behavior for most candidates, because typically the candidate with thebigger campaign war chest wins the election 80 percent to 90 percent of the time. Meanwhile the price tag for federal elections keeps going up. The 2016 election was the most expensive federal election to date at a cost of $6.5 billion. The high price tag was attributable to Congressional races. And then in the 2018, the midterm election was the most expensive midterm ever at a cost of $5.7 billion. Without public financing for congressional candidates, the only way to avoid the burden of fundraising is to be independently wealthy.

The Problem

Lawmakers simply are not required to report how much time they spend on fundraising. The only sources of this information are the comments of former legislators and leaks.

What is known is how much money people running in federal elections raise which is reported to the Federal Election Commission, which groups like Open Secrets and Followthemoney.org aggregate. These records show that fundraising totals by incumbents up for reelection is soaring. The average amount of money incumbents in the House raised in 2018 was $1.8 million, which was more than double the average spent by House incumbents in 2000 at $0.8 million. One possible reason for this increase: The maximum anyone can give a single candidate increased from $1,000 to $2,800 today.

Roping in donations takes a lot of congressional call time. Former lawmakers reveal what dialing for dollars is really like. “It’s horrific," Steve Israel, a Democrat, told the New York Times when he announced his retirement after 16 years in the House. "I don’t think I can spend another day in another call room making another call begging for money.” Israel estimated that he had spent 4,200 hours in call rooms and 1,600 hours at fundraising dinners to raise $20 million in campaign cash. In 2016, the late Republican Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina stated in an interview, “[e]verything has gotten out of hand up here. It's all about raising money.”

Former Democratic Rep. Gerald Sikorski from Minnesota summed up the impact of excessive fundraising: “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.”

Leaks are another source of information about the magnitude of call time. A PowerPoint presentation the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent freshmen Democrats in 2013 suggested they plan to spend roughly 25 hours of fundraising a week if they are taking weekends off, and 35 hours if they don’t.

“Well, 30 hours a week, that’s a lot of telemarketing,” Democrat Rep. Rick Nolan of Minnesota said in 2016. “Probably more than most telemarketers do.” In 2017, Republican former Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee wrote, “The ugliest truth is that our ‘representatives’ of the people spend as much as half their time raising money.”

As then-freshman Republican Rep. David Jolly noted in 2016 after he won a special election in his Florida district, the first order of business was not working on legislation. Instead, it was raising money to foot his bills for the next election. Rep. Jolly told 60 Minutes. "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.” Rep. Jolly also noted that the work schedules for Congress have bowed around fundraising: “You never see a committee working through lunch because those are your fundraising times. And then in between afternoon votes and evening votes, that is when you can see Democrats walking down this street, Republicans walking down that street to spend time on the phone making calls.”

Things could be even worse for senators whose races cost even more than House seats. The average Senate incumbent in 2018 raised $15.5 million. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said in 2014 that Senators spend two-thirds of their time on fundraising in the last two years of their terms. Or as former Republican Senator Alan Simpson from Wyoming recalled of his time fundraising when he was a Senator, “‘I felt embarrassed. I thought it was ugly ... My staff kept saying, ‘You’ve got to go do it.’ You get a Rolodex; you go outside the building for a whole day and dial numbers of jerks you’ve never heard of in your whole life to get money out of ‘em.” A memo leaked that same year showed that political consultants encouraged Michelle Nunn, a Democrat then running for a Senate seat from Georgia, to spend 80 percent of her time fundraising.

Because fundraising on federal property is illegal under a 2002 law called the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, lawmakers need to scuttle off like crabs to nearby office buildings to speak with donors over the phone. This dislocation means that the dialing for dollars takes up even more time.


Technology may offer some relief by making it easier for small donors to give what they can on a regular basis. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, is encouraging her supporters to give a small amount online on a monthly basis. She called this model Netflix, but for unbought members of Congress.

But if the problem is that campaigns are privately financed, then the solution is public financing for congressional elections. This reform is included in HR 1, which the House passed on March 8, 2019. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he will not allow a vote on the Senate's version of HR 1. As an incumbent raising money for his 2020 reelection, Sen. McConnell is likely dialing for dollars too. Perhaps he could scuttle back to the floor and give the Senate version of HR 1 a fair hearing.