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Politics

Nolan learns new D.C. mantra is 'Show me the money'

Fresh off a $16 million congressional race, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan received a not-so-subtle reminder that he is expected to maintain the frenzied fundraising pace that helped him win his northern Minnesota seat.

Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune

Updated: February 11, 2013 - 5:40 AM

WASHINGTON - Less than two weeks after the November election, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan had an eye-opening re-introduction to Congress.

Fresh off a $16 million congressional race, Nolan received a not-so-subtle reminder that he is expected to maintain the frenzied fundraising pace that helped him win his northern Minnesota seat.

During an orientation session, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee staff recommended that incoming members, as part of a 10-hour work day, spend four hours daily on the phone canvassing for campaign contributions during the congressional session.

That is twice as much time as the DCCC recommended spending on actual legislative work, such as attending committee meetings and voting.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has fundraising expectations for its members, also, but no specific guidelines, spokesman Ian Prior said.

With approval ratings for Congress at all-time lows, observers say the focus on fundraising may be at least partly to blame: Members now often spend more time chasing campaign cash than compromise.

When he served in the 1970s and early '80s, Nolan said, candidates could predict fairly accurately how much money they'd need to campaign. But modern campaigns are filled with uncertainty and candidates are fearful they've never raised enough.

"Members are saying there's no sense in running if I'm not going to have more money than the other guy," Nolan said. "You don't necessarily have to have more money than the other candidate, but you better have enough to get your message out there."

Nolan plans to introduce legislation that could slow the tide of money rolling into campaigns: A bill that would mandate public funding for elections, restrict the length of campaigns and reverse portions of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the door for billions of dollars in corporate, labor union and individual contributions to flow into campaign coffers.

But Nolan's push has its critics.

"It is a little disingenuous, considering the amount of money that was spent on him and his candidacy," said the NRCC's Prior.

Nolan said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and political action committees that spent more than $4.5 million to help him unseat Republican Chip Cravaack are not to blame. He's targeting the rules that ushered in the era of unprecedented campaign spending, Nolan spokesman Steve Johnson said.

"The congressman recognizes that you need money to get elected," Johnson said. But "it shouldn't be sucking away time [members of Congress] should spend governing."

'A hard reality'

When Nolan left Congress in 1981, members spent time on the House floor and in offices and cafeterias, chatting up colleagues and forging connections regardless of party ties.

"It's a very different environment than when he was here" before, said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

Now, he said, as soon as a vote is taken on the House floor, a stream of representatives often can be seen bolting for Republican and Democratic party headquarters or party social clubs to begin dialing for dollars.

"[Fundraising] literally takes them away from their jobs," said Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.

Former Republican Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, now a D.C.-based lobbyist, said the demands of fundraising can crowd out even time once dedicated to reading and studying legislation.

"That's a hard reality," Weber said.

Cash rules

Nolan said that the DCCC presentation to incoming members likely understated the time spent fundraising to avoid intimidating new members.

He said that conventional wisdom dictates that "if you're smart, you're going to spend 30 hours per week" on the phone, at formal fundraisers and meeting with potential donors.

Nolan's 1978 campaign cost less than $270,000. But that was long before the Citizens United decision.

He also had the luxury of serving amid a 40-year span of Democratic House control. Republicans recaptured the House in 1994. The jousting for control of the lower chamber has expanded the role of the parties' campaign committees and raised the stakes for candidates and sitting members of Congress.

House members are expected to contribute to their party's campaign committees each election cycle, either directly or by donating to other candidates.

In both parties, failure to deliver can carry severe consequences. Laggards can lose choice committee assignments and the backing of party leaders, Weber said. The parties could even compound a member's woes by saying, "Don't count on us next election," Weber said.

Being a veteran member in a safe district does not relieve fundraising responsibilities. They are relied on to help more vulnerable colleagues and boost promising candidates like Nolan who are out to unseat a member of the opposing party.

A 22-year House member, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson coasted to re-election last fall, but still contributed $250,000 to his party's campaign coffers. Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen, a member of the influential House Ways and Means Committee, donated $62,000 to the parallel Republican group.

Herrnson, the University of Maryland political scientist, said the odds of major campaign finance reform appear slim.

"Even the people opposed [to the current system] ... feel compelled to raise even more because they have to be prepared for an onslaught of [outside] money," Herrnson said.

Nolan said that when he begins fundraising for 2014, he'll stick to weekends and evenings. He will not, he said, devote four hours a day during his work week.

"If it means I'm a one-term congressman, so be it," he said.

Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell

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