On The Daily Show on Thursday former President Bill Clinton made some very good points about the pressures on legislators and how the need to finance increasingly expensive campaigns is reducing the quality of representation which they provide and contributing to the increasingly contentious atmosphere in Washington. This is especially true for members of the House of Representatives who have to face an election every two years and are fighting so hard to stay in office that they don't actually get as much done or pay as much attention to what they are doing as they should.
Clinton provided a typical example: "Suppose you're a Senator from a small state in the inter-mountain west, but you've still got to raise a lot of money and you don't have a lot of people in your state. You may be out four nights a week on fundraisers for four of the six years you've got a Senate term. These poor House members - let's say you've got to fly back and forth from California or Oregon or Washington every weekend to do your job and then when you're back in Washington you're doing this (fundraising)."
Say what you like about Bill Clinton and his pecadillos, even if you disagree with him politically, you have to admit that he's no dummy and he knows American politics and he can cut to the heart of an issue. I recall how different the atmosphere on Capitol Hill was in the 1970s when I had my first jobs on Capitol Hill. The atmosphere was much more relaxed and collegial.
Clinton shared similar recollections with Jon Stewart about his time working in the Senate just out of college, when "the typical Senator would come to Washington for seven months a year and work like crazy and stay in Washington on the weekend, not fly home...and they got to rest and they got to see their friends and they got to sit and meet with members of both parties and talk through issues and read books and think. Then five months a year...they got to go home and they would stay there and they would travel around their states and their districts and they would listen to people."
His description reminded me of an era before either of us was born, harkening back to the early days of the republic, when travel distances made it impossible for legislators to make quick trips back and forth to their home districts and when there was no national mass media, so campaigns were won or lost on the candidate's record, his speeches and the personal effort he put into campaigning. Daniel Webster didn't win elections by buying the most national ad time, he won them by driving his buggy from town to town all over Massachusetts and making a speech in every tavern and every meeting house. He spent his time and he used his wit and eloquence, but he didn't have to spend a disproportionate amount of his time on Beacon Hill raising money.