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Steve Israel, Ace Fundraiser: Dialing for Dollars an ‘Unnecessary Evil’

Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y. and Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., talk in the Capitol after President Obama's 2016 State of the Union address. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y. and Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., talk in the Capitol after President Obama's 2016 State of the Union address. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“The more I thought about the prospect of having to raise another $2 million in one of the most expensive media markets in the country in the only competitive district in all of House leadership, the less excited I was at the prospect,” he told me. “People say fundraising in Congress is a necessary evil.  No.  It’s an unnecessary evil.”
In an op-ed in The New York Times, Israel cataloged the inordinate amount of time he’d had to spend raising campaign cash, a process he compared to “panhandling with hors d’oeuvres.” It came to 4,200 hours in call time and 1,600 fundraisers.
Even though fundraising has long been part of the job for members of Congress, Israel said the 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, which essentially eliminated limits to campaign donations, was the event that fundamentally changed the role of money in politics.
“That was the line of demarcation,” Israel said of Citizens United. “Members have a legitimate concern that they are going to be targeted by a dark money super PAC and they’re not going to have the resources to respond.”
It happened to him. Israel described the moment he turned on his television at home in Long Island only to see an ad featuring a burning Israeli flag with a voiceover that said, “If you care about Israel, vote Republican.”
“Now, my name is ‘Israel’ and I’m a Democrat and I vote Democrat,” he said. “That ad was paid for by a committee I never heard of. I still don’t know who they are.”
To Israel’s point, outside spending in congressional races has more than doubled since the Citizens United decision in 2010. with half of that being unreported “dark money.” According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice in the 10 most competitive Senate races in 2014, outside spending accounted for 47 percent of all money in the races, with the candidates spending 41 percent, and party committees spending just 12 percent. In many ways, the men and women running for office have become supporting actors to the people spending millions to influence the outcome of their elections.
Israel lays the blame for the current system at the feet of the Republican majority, which he said refuses to consider the DISCLOSE Act, the Democratic proposal to increase transparency and enforcement in campaign spending. “Both parties hate fundraising, but only one party wants to stop it,” he said.
In fairness, Democrats at every level have been willing to use super PACs to go dollar-for-dollar in campaign spending with Republicans if that’s what it takes to win. The super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton has raised $20 million this cycle and just reported $6 million from mega-donor George Soros.
But the super PAC-soaked presidential contest may also have the solution to the super PAC arms race in the Bernard Sanders campaign. Sanders, who has no super PAC, raised $20 million in January alone, nearly all of it in the form of small online donations from grassroots donors.
The benefit for Sanders goes beyond novelty: He spends almost no time fundraising, attends few fundraisers and has no finance team to pay. By avoiding mega-donors and PACs, Sanders has sidestepped many of the pressures that are pushing members of Congress out of office. But of course, he hasn’t won his election yet, either.
Israel’s retirement should have popped out of the headlines like a big red flag. If a top panhandler can’t stomach the game anymore, you know the system is broken. The good news for the congressman is he may have  a second career as a novelist once he leaves Capitol Hill. He published his first book, “The Global War on Morris,” to strong reviews and has a follow-up in the works.  If all goes well, the next hors d’oeuvres Steve Israel sees will be at his book party.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy also covers national politics for the Daily Beast. 
Follow her on Twitter at @1PatriciaMurphy.

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