Issue One Report: Exiting Congresspeople Pull Back the Curtain on House Dysfunction and Corruption

We know the current political system, where big money supports powerful political parties that demand toeing the party line, isn’t working for citizens. A recent report by Issue One and the R Street Institute reveals how deeply the system vexes elected officials hoping to effectively legislate and represent constituents.

In the report, Why We Left Congress, members of Congress from both parties who voluntarily left their seats in the House share why they chose not to return to Congress. In all, a remarkable 52 House members chose not to seek re-election in 2018—the highest number since 1930, save 1992 when 65 House members retired.


Photo credit: Issue One

Partisanship and Dysfunction

According to the Issue One/R Street report, a number of lawmakers claim partisanship and dysfunction as key reasons for the mass exodus, systemic issues that make the tasks of representing constituents and debating legislation almost impossible. “Far too often,” says the report, “House members today have little say in how bills are drafted and are expected to simply toe the party line. They are also asked to continuously fundraise for themselves and for their parties, lest they suffer diminished leadership and legislative opportunities.” Another recent investigation by The Washington Post and ProPublica, How Congress Stopped Working, states, “today’s legislative branch, far from the model envisioned by the founders, is dominated by party leaders and functions as a junior partner to the executive.”

An Internal Pay-to-Play System

Representatives describe a system where policy-making power is so centralized that party leaders, not Representative committee chairs, determine the majority of legislative language and strategy. They also describe a system of internal pay-to-play politics, where all members of Congress owe party dues they must raise for their respective parties, and where committee assignments “cost” extra money paid to party coffers. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), first elected to the House in 2012, says he got notes stuffed in his pockets “just to remind you that you owe some money if you want to keep your committee assignment…The incentive structure is set up to get you to sell out to lobbyists because they’re the only ones who have the currency you need…to buy your committee assignments.

A Bummer for Good People

The report is built upon conversations with numerous exiting members of Congress, and it’s filled with concerning and frank insights, including this one from former Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN), now a co-chair of Issue One’s Reformer Caucus: “I don’t know of a single member that is leaving that does not include the pressure of raising money to advance and maintain your committee position as one of the contributing factors…That’s the inconvenient truth of Congress today: You’re a money machine. There is more focus on that than solving the country’s problems. For good people, that’s a real bummer.” Read the full report.

Part of the Solution

American Promise’s vision includes a representative democracy where government is not plagued by these avoidable issues. Our volunteers across the nation are working with their legislators, on both sides of the the aisle, to build consensus and support for the 28th Amendment, which would provide permanent, secure legal standing to support the type of legislation we need to address these issues. Our Candidate Pledge program opens the dialogue between representatives and their constituents and offers an opportunity for elected officials and candidates to voice their support of such an amendment to fix our broken political system. Learn more about it.

Issue One is a cross-partisan political reform group dedicated to uniting Republicans, Democrats and independents to fix our broken political system.