GW Panel Walks the Line between Campaigning and Governing

Preoccupation with reelection and raising campaign funds makes it harder for legislators to govern, a bipartisan panel agrees.

Casey Burgat (top left) and panelists Matthew Pezzella (top right), Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Mike Bishop discussed the tension
Casey Burgat (top left) and panelists Matthew Pezzella (top right), Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Mike Bishop discussed the tension between campaigning and governing in the latest Agree or Disagree discussion from GSPM. (William Atkins/GW Today)
October 27, 2021

By Greg Varner

Campaign finance reform is urgently needed in the United States, according to a bipartisan consensus reached on Tuesday at the first webinar in the latest “Agree or Disagree” series presented by the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.

The series is designed to showcase conversation across the political aisle. Tuesday’s event was devoted to exploring the line between campaigning and governing.

Panelists included two former U.S. representatives, Republican Mike Bishop and Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, both recently appointed as GSPM fellows for the 2021-22 academic year. The erstwhile members of Congress were joined by Matthew Pezzella, manager of government and industry affairs for ASTM International and also a student pursuing his master’s degree in GW’s Legislative Affairs Program.

The panel was moderated by Casey Burgat, the program’s director, who chose the topic after watching so many students go from eager and full of hope to worn down and dispirited by the partisan gridlock that now characterizes Washington.

Dr. Burgat began by asking panelists to share their insights about what it is like to campaign and govern at the same time.

“I found out really fast that I had two full-time jobs,” said Ms. Mucarsel-Powell of the balancing act between representing her constituents and raising campaign funds.

Mr. Bishop agreed, likening Congress to a “gigantic machine” in which you may face opposition not only from the other party, but also from members of your own party.

“You like to think you’re working for the common good, and it’s not partisan,” he said, “but it is indeed partisan.”

“The reality is that there are far more bills that have bipartisan support,” said Mr. Pezzella, who lobbies members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, “but political reasons keep them from being brought up for a vote. Members are always thinking about how what they do affects their next election cycle.”

Both external and internal party disputes sap time and energy, Mr. Bishop said, narrowing the window of what is possible for Congress to achieve.

“I think if the public knew about it,” Mr. Bishop said, “they would be disgusted, frankly.”

Dr. Burgat pointed to frustration even on the current majority side, with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) both trying to bring opposing wings of their own party together.

Part of the problem, Ms. Mucarsel-Powell said, is how the 24-hour news cycle creates conflict by calling attention to certain members. The spotlight currently shining on Democratic senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is a case in point.

“They’re getting a lot of attention,” she added, “and unfortunately that attention goes to members’ heads. I don’t want to see congressional members on camera.”

Mr. Bishop said that the process of legislating and campaigning “becomes so convoluted and crazy at times, it’s almost a wonder that we can get anything done.”

In such an environment, he said, it can be difficult if not impossible for individual lawmakers to push even sensible proposals through.

With an increasing number of House members in safe seats, said Dr. Burgat, and the same situation in the Senate, members have to devote time to fending off primary challenges, and their electoral base becomes ever more specialized.

“That obviously affects what they’re willing to support,” Dr. Burgat said, “and how willing they are to compromise.”

Members in safe districts, Ms. Mucarsel-Powell agreed, may wind up voting against the best interests of constituents in an effort to deflect primary challenges.

“Sometimes you have to do things that may lose your election to be worthy of being elected in the first place,” she said. “Our government is broken.”

Mr. Bishop agreed, saying, “At every level of government, I’ve seen this. It’s a lack of checks and balances and not being held accountable for the things we say and do.”

The best way for legislators to operate, he said, is to focus on their conscience and their district.

“If you have met your moral obligations to your district and your conscience,” he said, “you’ve done your job.”

All three panelists agreed on the pressing need for campaign finance reform.

“We really need to get money out of politics,” Ms. Mucarsel-Powell said. “That’s what has gotten us where we are right now.”

 

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