Editor’s Note: Steve Bullock is the governor of Montana and a Democratic presidential candidate. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
Five hours after President Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president, he did something no other president had done before. He began his campaign for re-election. Previously, presidents focused on doing their jobs before filing for re-election, with President Obama waiting more than two years before officially restarting his campaign apparatus.
Yet President Trump is not alone. Members of Congress start raising money for their next election almost immediately after their last election is over. Often, they carry forward money from their last campaign, building up stockpiles of cash to discourage potential challengers.
Many even use money raised for their congressional campaign as the foundation for their presidential bid. Of the eight current Democratic federal officeholders running for president, seven transferred money from their federal accounts.
This doesn’t just affect campaigns; it affects governing. The rule in Washington is fundraising first, and everything else second. Issue One, a nonprofit dedicated to government ethics and political reform, estimates that members of the last Congress spent nearly 1.5 million hours fundraising for their re-election campaigns. Meanwhile, Congress hasn’t passed a budget on time in more than 20 years.
It’s only natural to wonder how they might have spent their time otherwise. Meeting with the voters who got them to Washington in the first place? Attending committee hearings and floor debates? Or, Heaven forbid, building relationships with other members of Congress – maybe even those from the other party?
The truth is we send our representatives to Washington to do a lot of important things, but running for re-election isn’t one of them.
More than just the opportunity cost of the time spent, it’s the content of the time that is wasted. When members of Congress spend nearly every day chasing donations, that means they spend almost every day listening to the interests behind that campaign cash. No wonder almost nothing seems to get done anymore. The unending cycle of chasing campaign cash, and the monied interests that dole it out, grinds progress in Washington to a halt.
And the effects of these priorities extend beyond DC. When our leaders obsess over landing the biggest checks, regular folks – voters – lose trust that their input, or even their vote, really makes a lick of difference.
It doesn’t have to be this way. When we send leaders to Washington, let’s require that they spend at least half of their term working for the voters – not for the money. That means no chasing donors, no PAC checks, no fundraising – not even setting up a campaign committee – until they first do the job they were elected to do.
Expecting our elected officials to spend at least half of their time actually doing their jobs is just common sense. But in Washington, common sense can be a pretty radical idea.
So, to make things simple, here’s how it would work. At the end of a campaign, every federal elected official and challenger would be required to close their campaign account and stop campaign activity. They couldn’t restart their campaign until half-way through the term of the office they hold: that’s three years for US senators, two years for presidents and one year for members of the House.
During that time, they couldn’t file for re-election, solicit donations, clog up your inbox with fundraising emails or raise money for affiliated leadership PACs.
Any money a campaign has remaining after paying expenses from the last election will be donated to charity, the presidential matching funds program, or to the government for deficit reduction. When everyone starts from zero, an incumbent’s campaign account can’t be used to scare away challengers for the next election or used to lay the groundwork for running for a different office.
It’s what we do in Montana after each election – and it works.
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In 2016, Donald Trump won Montana by 20 points. That same year I ran as a pro-choice, pro-union, populist Democrat and was re-elected by four points. Despite those partisan divides, we’ve been able to get progressive things done by showing up and working together – from expanding Medicaid to nearly 100,000 people to freezing college tuition and banning dark money. If we can do that in Montana, we can do it all across our country.
Unfortunately, this past week in Washington has demonstrated how desperately reform is needed to restore credibility in government and take on big challenges.
While the impeachment inquiry is necessary to investigate threats to our national security, we cannot allow it to exacerbate divides and further stall progress. Our leaders in Washington have to earn back the trust of the American people – and doing their job should be the first step.