Democracy and Elections

What Happened When I Gatecrashed Dozens of Capitol Hill Fundraising Parties

It's pretty awkward for members of Congress and their staff to have a video crew show up your fundraiser.

When I showed up unannounced--and with a video crew in tow--at a couple dozen Congressional fundraisers on Capitol Hill, I felt as if I were channeling two paragons of contrarian virtue: first, Diogenes the Cynic, the ancient Greek sage who carried a lantern around Athens during the daytime, looking for an honest man; second, the great sociologist Harold Garfinkel, who in the 1960s pioneered the use of what he called "breaching experiments," interactions in which researchers intentionally breach unspoken rules of conduct to reveal hidden features of our social order.   

In my breaching experiment, the unspoken rule was that you do not show up to a Congressional fundraiser with a video crew and ask to speak to a member of Congress or their staff.  Even just for two minutes. Even if you are very polite. Even though all of the money raised is going to be reported to the Federal Elections Commission and posted on their website. You do not ask how much the member of Congress or candidate expects to raise. You do not even inquire about the suggested contribution levels--even though those numbers are also available online, thanks to the hundreds of fundraiser invitations that lobbyists have leaked to the Sunlight Foundation's website Political Partytime.   

Fundraising parties seem to be proliferating--possibly as an unintended consequence of the otherwise laudable post-Abramoff reforms of 2007, which banned gifts from lobbyists to members of Congress, restricted the use of corporate jets by members, and curbed junkets like Abramoff's notorious Scottish golfing trip. In his new book, So Damn Much Money, Robert Kaiser quotes the prominent lobbyist Lawrence O'Brien III, who says the latest reforms "have shifted the emphasis over to political fundraising. Now writing checks and raising money is the simplest pathway to completely legal personal face time with members and their senior staff." 

It all may be "completely legal," but campaign finance advocates wonder what deals get cut along with all the big checks. After all, just before his sentencing no less an authority than Jack Abramoff reportedly said, "I was participating in a system of legalized bribery.  All of it is bribery, every bit of it." 

It may take time to dismantle what Kaiser calls "the culture of money, lobbying, and self-dealing that has metastasized over four decades." But a surprising alliance of good government groups, lobbyists, and business leaders believe this is the moment for sweeping campaign finance reform.  They are rallying behind bills that would publicly fund races for the House, Senate, and the presidency. That would certainly throw a wet blanket over D.C.'s party circuit. But would it really be so a bad if members of Congress no longer felt compelled to spend a quarter to a third of their time raising campaign cash?


P.S. About five minutes into the video, is that you, Michael Moore, gliding into the Wolverine PAC fundraiser, just as the hotel security guy is turning me away?

Over 10 years as a freelancer and, most recently, as a senior producer with New Media Mill, Harry Hanbury has specialized in producing, shooting, and editing public-interest videos.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018