NPR

Senator By Day, Telemarketer By Night

"I think most Americans would be shocked..." - Sen. Dick Durbin. (Getty Images)

This is the first story in a Planet Money series on money in politics. We'll have more this afternoon on All Things Considered, and this weekend on This American Life.

We think of lawmakers having one job: making laws. But there's a second job most lawmakers have to do. And it's a big job.

"I think most Americans would be shocked — not surprised, but shocked — if they knew how much time a United States senator spends raising money," says Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin. "And how much time we spend talking about raising money, and thinking about raising money, and planning to raise money."

And this second job — the raising-money job — doesn't happen in the nice congressional offices, with the rugs on the floor and landscape paintings on the wall. That would be against the rules.

So senators and congressmen go across the street to private rooms in nongovernmental buildings, where they make call after call, asking people for money.

In other words, most of our lawmakers are moonlighting as telemarketers.

"If you walked in there, you would say, 'Boy, this is the about the worst looking, most abusive looking call center situation I've seen in my life,'" says Rep. Peter Defazio, a Democrat from Oregon. "These people don't have any workspace, the other person is virtually touching them."

There are stacks of names in front of each lawmaker. They go through the list, making calls and asking people for money.

The fundraising never stops, because everyone needs money to run for re-election. In the House, the candidate with more money wins in 9 out of 10 races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. In the Senate, it's 8 out of 10.

It's not uncommon for congressmen to average three or four hours moonlighting as telemarketers. One lawmaker told me if it was the end of the quarter and he really needed to make his numbers, he'd be there all day long.

There's not always time to do both jobs. And often, the fundraising wins out over the lawmaking.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's go now to money and politics. This year's election is expected to break all previous spending records. So our Planet Money Team has been talking to Members of Congress, lobbyists, ex-lobbyists, congressional staffers, and fund-raising consultants to put together a series about the role money plays in the political process.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And that series kicks off today here on MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and then this weekend on WBEZ's This American Life.

Let's begin with some numbers. On average, the race to win a seat in the House of Representatives costs between one and $2 million. For the average Senate race it's millions more.

MONTAGNE: It's not uncommon to hear people complaining about all the money in politics. And as Planet Money's Alex Blumberg reports, some of the people who hate it the most, are the ones who have to raise it.

ALEX BLUMBERG, BYLINE: We think of lawmakers having one job, you know, making laws. But Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin says when you're in elected office, you have a second job, raising money.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: I think most Americans would be shocked - not surprised, but shocked - if they knew how much time a United States Senator spends raising money. And how much time we spend talking about raising money, and thinking about raising money, and planning to raise money, and, you know, going off on little retreats and conjuring up new ideas on how to raise money.

BLUMBERG: And this second job - the raising-money one - it doesn't happen in those nice offices with the American landscape oil painting on the wall. No, when lawmakers raise money, they have to leave those cushy digs and go across the street to these call centers. Both parties have them, private rooms in non-governmental buildings, where they dial and ask people for money.

That's right, most of our lawmakers are moonlighting as telemarketers. But Democrat Peter Defazio says, even that makes it sound better than it is.

REPRESENTATIVE PETER DEFAZIO: If you walked in there, you would say, boy, this is the about the worst looking, most abusive looking call center situation I've seen in my life. These people don't have any workspace, the other person is, you know, virtually touching them.

DURBIN: We sit at these desks with stacks of names in front of us, and short bios and histories of giving.

BLUMBERG: Again, Senator Dick Durbin. He says that on the Senate side, a bunch of them will take an afternoon and go to the call center together. They call it a power hour. You sit in that room, call down the list...

DURBIN: ...and ask them to give, and this goes on and on and on.

STEVE DRIEHAUS: It just never stops.

BLUMBERG: Steve Driehaus was a one term congressman from Ohio, a Democrat. And he says the reason the fundraising never stops, you can't stay in office without the money. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks money in politics, nine out of 10 races, the candidate with the most money wins. That's in the House. In the Senate, it's eight out of 10.

Driehaus needed to raise thousands of dollars every single day. And if that wasn't enough to worry about, he had his own party breathing down his neck.

DRIEHAUS: Oh, there's tremendous pressure, you know they expect you to be raising money. That will be a determining factor as to whether or not they feel it's a good use of their resources to support your reelection efforts.

BLUMBERG: How is that pressure made apparent to you? What do they say to you?

DEFAZIO: They check in on you. They check in to see if you're doing your part to raise money. They check in with your fundraising folks.

BLUMBERG: Just looking over your shoulder and saying like, this isn't going to be enough to win?

DEFAZIO: Yeah, absolutely.

BLUMBERG: Many Americans might say that lawmakers should give priority to the first job, the job they were elected to do. But it's not uncommon for congressman to average two, three, four hours a day doing the other job, the one in the call center.

One member told me, if it was the end of the quarter and he really needed to make his numbers, he'd be there all day long. The fact is, you don't have time to do both jobs. And often, the fundraising wins out over the lawmaking.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Blumberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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