"A form of torture."
John Oliver has staked his reputation as America’s most trusted comedic anchorman of the post-Jon Stewart era by milking unexpected comedy from segments about the poultry industry, abortion laws and the Medicaid gap. On Sunday’s installment of his HBO talk show Last Week Tonight, the British satirist took aim at another target ripe with hidden absurdities and conflicts of interest: Congressional fundraising.
In the 2014 election cycle, Oliver said, candidates for the House and Senate raised a combined $1.7 billion—the majority of that money solicited by politicians themselves rather than political action committees or so-called “dark money.” Citing estimates from former members of Congress, he noted that legislators can spend as much as two-thirds of their time in office fundraising for their reelection—rather than enacting laws. “Washington is like Rod Stewart’s haircut,” the comedian noted. “Party in the front. Party in the back. Frankly too much party! And no business anywhere to be found.”
Using published reports and video interviews with current and past politicians, Oliver provided an analytical breakdown of how they spend their fundraising.
Fundraisers that border on the weird
Among a reported 2,800 campaign fundraising events during that period, some officials went outside standard protocol to line their reelection coffers. Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, for one, used her 30th wedding anniversary to stage an event to raise thousands of dollars in campaign finances. (Tickets were $1000 a couple.) Stranger still, 10 Republicans, five Democrats and three political action committees used a Taylor Swift concert as a staging ground for fundraising. They sold tickets at $750 to $2,500 a pop. Among them was Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia. “I don’t know about you. But this man is not feeling 22,” Oliver said, riffing off Swift’s famous song. “He’s feeling and looking very much 65.”
Hours on the telephone in a stinky room
More damning, a leaked Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee memo suggested lawmakers should spend four hours a day making campaign fundraising phone calls––even if they have a safe seat. (“The only time that makes sense is if you’re trying to have phone sex with Sting!” exclaimed Oliver—a swipe at the rock star’s reported penchant for tantric sex.)
Since federal law prohibits members of Congress from soliciting money inside their offices, they have to spend hours inside cubicles at party headquarters, making cold calls. “I felt embarrassed. I thought it was ugly,” former Wyoming senator Alan K. Simpson says in a video clip. “My staff kept saying, ‘You’ve got to go do it.’ You get a Rolodex; you go outside the building for a whole day and dial numbers of jerks you’ve never heard of in your whole life to get money out of ‘em.”
According to a Reuters correspondent, “the building can really start to stink… After a few hours, it starts to smell like a locker room.”
Change no one can believe in
Despite it all, Oliver acknowledged that enacting legislation to regulate such fundraising will prove difficult. According to the controversial 1976 Supreme Court decision Buckley v Valeo, spending money is a protected form of free speech. “Sure, there are times when that is probably true,” Oliver said. “A 50-year-old man spends money on a convertible is loudly saying, ‘I would like to sexually disappoint a woman half my age.’ And we are hearing him loud and clear.”
And while many politicians say they hate campaign financing, nobody wants to back down. Oliver likened the situation to the Cold War—but worse. “At least in the real Cold War, we got a trip to the moon and the third best Rocky villain out of it,” he said.
A congressman calls it “a form of torture”
Oliver ended the segment with an interview with New York congressman Steve Israel. The representative estimated he had organized 1,600 fundraising events—one every three days over his 16 years in office—but announced his retirement earlier this year by saying, “I don’t think i can spend another day in another call room making another call begging for money.”
Asked by the host to paint a “word picture” of his time inside a call center, Israel admitted it was “not what our founders had in mind.”
“If you are in a very competitive district and you know you’ve got to raise $1.5 million, you have to raise a certain amount of money every quarter,” Israel said. “You break it down to a certain amount of money every month. You break it down to a certain amount of money every week. And you break it down to a certain amount of money in every hour of call time.”
“This whole call center sounds like a [expletive] telemarketing operation,” said Oliver.
“It is, in my view, a form of torture,” the congressman said. “The real victims of this torture have become the American people because they believe they don’t have a voice in this system.”
Watch the entire segment here:
Chris Lee is a former staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He covers entertainment, culture and business in Los Angeles.