On November 8, voters in Minnesota’s Third Congressional District will decide whether they want to send Erik Paulsen back to Washington.
Don’t think of it as sending him back to the Capitol building. Members of Congress are doing less and less inside those hallowed halls. Their work is mostly across the street. They report to their party’s “call centers” several times a week, hours at a time, dialing for re-election dollars.
Paulsen’s gotten good at this. Through the middle of this summer, he’d raised over $3 million this election cycle, good for 25th out of 435 House members.
That’s why it’s so infuriating that he likes spending taxpayer money instead. Earlier this month, the Star Tribune reported Paulsen has used $116,000 (and counting) on publicly funded mailings to people in his district, five times the median his fellow members spent on mailings from 2012-2014.
Paulsen would say these glossy mailers are just his way of communicating with his constituents in the western Minneapolis suburbs. He seems to think what people want most from their congressman is large pictures of Erik Paulsen looking thoughtful.
They come with tiny disclaimers about “taxpayer expense.” Far larger is the message that Paulsen is “effective, accountable, and getting results for Minnesota.”
The biggest “result” he’s gotten lately is killing the tax on medical devices, a boon for an industry whose profit margins have risen 44 percent since 2005. It spares manufacturers $5 billion over the next two years, which is great for their CEOs, less so for the working poor who used the money to buy health insurance.
This brings us back to Paulsen’s piggy bank. Some $736,000 of his campaign account comes from the insurance, pharmaceutical, and medical industries. Consider Rhode Island-based Boston Scientific, a medical device corporation, which will get a nice break on its $1.3 billion in annual income, thanks to Paulsen.
Since 2011, Boston Scientific president Michael Mahoney has forked over $20,000 to the Advanced Medical Technology Association PAC — a.k.a. “AdvaMed” — a D.C. power player that spent $5.3 million on lobbying in 2014-15 buying access to people like Paulsen, and $350,000 to make sure they got re-elected.
The congressman has taken about $17,000 from AdvaMed during his tenure, and another $26,000 from Boston Scientific’s own PAC.
Paulsen needs every penny. He’s in a dogfight, facing a strong opponent, state Sen. Terri Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka), in a moderate district where Donald Trump won’t do Republicans any favors atop the ticket.
Bonoff raised $620,000 in one quarter last spring. The same day Bonoff announced her total, impressive for a challenger, Paulsen boasted of a $1 million take for that quarter.
“At first when I heard that, I was so discouraged,” Bonoff admits. “Then, when I went into his [campaign finance] report to look at it, well over half of his money was coming from special interests and PACs. And I thought, well, that’s why I’m running.” (Paulsen declined to be interviewed.)
With so much cash sloshing around, it’s hard to keep track of whose bribes matter most.
Take Wells Fargo. Over the years, the bank and its executives have given Paulsen $121,000. Maybe they just really, really like the guy. Or at least enough to not open any fraudulent accounts in his name.
This system of legalized bribery is onerous even to people who don’t deserve sympathy: big-time lobbyists. Dave Levinthal, a political reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, says lobbyists are exhausted by a racket where the only way to get face time with lawmakers is at breakfasts, happy hours, or golf outings that come with a four-figure cover charge.
“That $1,000 donation may seem like a lot to a lot of people, but that’s just the entry fee to doing business,” Levinthal says. “If you’re at a fundraiser with 25 or 50 people, and the congressman’s walking around a couple hours, you’re going to at least get a few minutes of face time.”
Said face will be a beleaguered one if it belongs to Rick Nolan. Nolan (D-Crosby) is acclaimed for being one of the grumpiest, least enthusiastic fundraisers in Washington. It’s a charge he doesn’t deny.
Representatives are advised by their leaders to spend 30 hours a week calling or meeting with donors in D.C., and another 10 collecting checks back in their district. Add in travel days to and from their districts and, by Nolan’s math, you’ve got “about 54 hours in the week where nobody’s done any work on the people’s business.”
It was a lot different when Nolan, 72, first served in the mid-1970s. Then, Congress worked five full days a week on actual legislating.
Now, what little gets done — almost none of it good — is the result of their time spent across the street, making Friends with a capital “F.”
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