WASHINGTON — Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan thinks that members of Congress shouldn’t be able to personally solicit campaign contributions — no phone calls, no fundraisers, no emails, no nothing.
That idea is at the center of a bill Nolan is backing: called the STOP Act, the proposal aims to rein in the amount of time lawmakers spend fundraising. In recent years, members of both parties have been encouraged by their parties to spend as many as four hours per day on the phone at party headquarters, cold-calling potential donors, and as many as five hours per week attending fundraisers in person.
Nolan believes all that time spent fundraising is bad for the democratic process, and makes it hard for Congress to fulfill its responsibilities.
Though such a bill is almost certain not to pass Congress this year, it’s made for some good publicity for Nolan, and his Republican co-sponsor, Florida Rep. David Jolly. Both were featured in a “60 Minutes” segment in May about the law and fundraising.
Jolly, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Marco Rubio, has pledged to not only stay away from party-run call centers, but also to abstain from personally soliciting donations.
Speaking at an event with Jolly on Monday at Washington’s National Press Club, Nolan said he couldn’t take that same pledge — not if he hopes to win re-election in another tough contest against his wealthy challenger, Stewart Mills.
“I have a self-funded opponent worth hundreds of millions of dollars who says he will spend whatever it takes to win this election contest,” Nolan said. “My last two contests were among the two most expensive in the country. This one looks like it’ll be the singularly most expensive race in the country.”
“I’m trying to make sure I’ve got enough money to defend myself,” Nolan said, adding that Mills is “spending hundreds of thousands of dollars against me in television ads right now, as we speak.”
Nolan’s support of the STOP Act — but his inability to abide by the pledge it would make into law — underscores the difficulty underpinning debates about reforming money in politics: Nolan wants to make change, but he can’t make change unless he stays in power, and he needs to raise money to stay in power.
A prolific, if reluctant, fundraiser
Apparently, Nolan believes that pledging to severely limit fundraising activities would hurt his odds to defeat Mills. Jolly, meanwhile, has wagered that taking the pledge will not hurt him; in fact, it could turn out to be a deft play to help him stand out in a crowded Senate primary.
While he says he has not stepped inside the call centers of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this cycle, Nolan admits “when the Congress is not in session, I spend a considerable amount of time raising money.”
Certainly, Nolan has proven an able fundraiser: since January 2015, he’s raised over $1.1 million toward his re-election, with over $580,000 coming from political action committees.
Nolan will need to raise at least another million dollars to match his effort in 2014, when he raised and spent around $2.1 million to defeat Mills. More than half of that total, $1.2 million, went to media, while $230,000 went to sustaining fundraising efforts.
According to event invitations reviewed by MinnPost, Nolan will spend at least a few hours fundraising when he’s in Washington for legislative work — he has two events scheduled in the capital in mid-June.
And despite railing against the call centers, Nolan says he has a “wonderfully good” relationship with the DCCC. The Democratic committee spent $4.4 million supporting Nolan in 2014, and will likely spend heavily for him again this year.
Victims of Citizens United
Not that Nolan seems happy about any of this. The congressman argued that the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which he said injects more money into every part of the process, has made members of Congress’ jobs miserable. He says all the fundraising turns off potentially strong recruits from running for office.
“Members of the Congress are victims of Citizens United,” he said. “I support a system of small donations and public finance, so you can have a level playing field.”
Nolan says a comprehensive approach — overturning Citizens United, passing the STOP Act, bolstering public financing — is going to be the only approach that will roll back the influence of money in politics in a meaningful way.
Until that happens — and Nolan jokes it’ll be long after he retires — he and other like-minded candidates will have to work within the confines of the system, no matter how unpalatable they find it.
“Yeah, I gotta have some money to get some of our own ads out there, defining myself and getting our message out there.
“Having said that,” Nolan added, “I could not believe more strongly in the importance of this STOP Act.”