Every so often, word of Rep. Jim Cooper's blue dog moderation makes its way back to Nashville and riles up local liberals. Anyone perusing Twitter on the nights he voted against millions of dollars in relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy, or a bill that would have restricted the National Security Agency's snooping, has witnessed the shock and awe that consumes the lefty set when they realize, again, that their congressman is an unabashed conservative Democrat.
For this week's issue of the Scene, we sat down with Cooper for a chat about those issues and more. After the jump, he talks about the serious side of a scenario we suggested in jest — one in which he becomes Speaker of the House — and in doing so, shares some troubling observations about the role of money in today's politic.
We've had a little fun with your vote for speaker
Oh, yeah. [laughter]
But we're serious in wondering if there is a way today for a speaker to not be completely beholden to a party caucus. Is that possible? Is it even a good idea?
Well, first let me say that I do think I'm qualified to be speaker, because I do know how to use a speakerphone. [laughter] I may be the only person in congressional history who voted for somebody of the opposite party to be speaker, 'cause Colin Powell is a well-known Republican —
Well, he supported Barack Obama, but he's a credentialed, card-carrying Republican. He's also shown great leadership, he's popular with people in both parties and I thought it would be a healing influence in this contentious House. I knew beforehand that it was going to be ugly this year, so that's one reason I voted for him.
The partisan issue is tough, because with modern fundraising, that's how they raise the money. Pretty much anybody, to be eligible to be speaker, has to raise about $75 million dollars of cycle to hand out to their colleagues, and I think that's one of the worst parts of Congress. It used to be an insult to be given a check by a colleague, because that implied you were weak or hurting or something, but now it's expected. If you don't have a pocket full of $5,000 checks to hand out to your colleagues at the end of each quarter, they think you don't like them.
But aren't we seeing that break down a little bit? Particularly at the extremes of either party, you're seeing money come that's not from leadership, and that's causing those ties to erode.
You're exactly right. In the last two weeks of an election, anyone is roadkill if an angry billionaire, or an independent, decides that they don't like you, and you have no protection against that whatsoever. You won't even know who did it.
But the effect of that fear, in the last two weeks of an election, is to make the parties even more intense in fundraising and have everybody have bigger war chests and raise more money. One of the tragedies of modern Washington is the fact that most of my colleagues spend most of their time raising money. We meet in Washington very few days, but those days we're in Washington, lots of times, they're not in committee, they're not meeting with constituents from back home. They're doing what's called "call time" from these call centers right off the hill. Just inches off of federal soil, so they can solicit contributions, and that has a very negative effect.
So many people are wondering how the money goes on a vote, instead of what the right thing to do is. With the Supreme Court ruling saying that money is speech and that corporations are people — that's a double whammy. That's really opened the door for the corporate takeover of American politics.
Read the whole interview here.