“Why We Left Congress”: Excerpts of Our Conversation with Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN)

Congressman Rick Nolan (D-MN) has had an unconventional career in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He was first elected to Congress in 1974 and went on to serve three terms representing Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District. After 32 years out of office, he was again elected to Congress in 2012, this time representing Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, which encompasses most of northern Minnesota and the Iron Range.

Nolan currently serves on the House Agriculture Committee as well as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the 115th Congress. He is the ranking Democratic member of the Agriculture Committee’s subcommittee on general farm commodities and risk management.

He is one of just two “Watergate babies” — as the Democrats first elected after President Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation amid the Watergate scandal are called — still serving in Congress. (Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont is the other.)

Between his stints in Congress, Nolan worked in private business. He founded the U.S. Export Corporation and also owned a small sawmill and pallet factory.

When Nolan announced his decision to retire in February 2018, he said that he was “really going to miss representing” his constituents, but that he was also looking forward to spending more time with his wife, children, and grandchildren.

The following are excerpts of an interview Issue One and the R Street Institute conducted with Nolan for the “Why We Left Congress” project, a joint report about congressional dysfunction and what can be done to fix it, based on exit interviews with a bipartisan group of lawmakers who decided not to run for re-election in 2018.

How things have changed since he first served in Congress in the 1970s:

The changes from when I served in the ’70s to now are dramatic … [There are] dramatic differences in how campaigns and elections are financed and how the Congress operates … For people to think that there’s not a correlation between money and how the Congress works is a serious mistake … Congress has become dysfunctional.

On the fundraising pressures faced by members of Congress:

Members of Congress have become virtual middle-level telemarketers … Too many of them are sitting in cubicles across the street, dialing for dollars, and that’s a sad commentary.

What his colleagues think of “dialing for dollars”:

Most of them find it repugnant and demeaning.

On the amount of time members of Congress spend fundraising:

The professionals in campaigns and fundraising recommend that you spend 20 to 30 hours a week in the call center across the street [raising money].

Whether he spent that much time fundraising:

I didn’t do that. I’m one of the few that doesn’t. And [I] have been criticized and reprimanded for it.

What those reprimands looked like:

Just side comments [like] “Nolan doesn’t spend enough call time.” And then you hear statements like “If you don’t spend enough call time, how can you expect people who embrace your agenda to give money to you if you’re not doing your part?” Stuff like that … I had a member screaming at me and yelling at me for not doing my fair share of call time. And then [I got] accolades [from the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University] for being effective. The resentment was quite vitriolic.

His strategy for being an effective member of Congress:

I have a tendency to get bills and get things done because that’s what I went to Washington to do. I never darkened the door of the Democratic call center across the street in six years … I didn’t run across the street and raise money all day.

How the amount of money in politics has changed since he first served in Congress in the 1970s:

It takes a lot more effort to raise the money you need to defend yourself and to get your message out than it did back in the ’70s … As a practical matter, the amount of money you have for an election contest does matter. If there’s somebody out there spending $10, $12 million denigrating you, you better have the money to defend yourself and get your message out there.

On the relationship between congressional committees and money from special interest groups:

The outside interests … invest heavily in the committees that most affect and have [the] most jurisdiction and authority over their businesses and their operations … There tends to be a pretty clear relationship between where the main members on the Banking and Finance Committee get their money — [which] is different from those who serve on the Agriculture Committee. And that’s different from the people who serve on the Defense Committee. And that’s different from the people who serve on the Science and Technology Committee. And that’s different from the people who serve on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

On the ethics of members of Congress soliciting campaign cash from people with business before their committees:

Having a member of the Agriculture Committee calling the Soybean Association or the Pork Producers Association or Cargill or Pillsbury for money, I mean, almost on a prima facie basis, suggests something inappropriate. Although it’s not inappropriate. Legally. But there’s, I think, a very real and apparent conflict of interest involved in soliciting funds from the people you’re supposed to be monitoring and overseeing and regulating.

How fundraising affects the incentives for members of Congress in terms of legislating and overseeing industries:

If you’re compliant with a particular sector of interest, you’re more apt to get a lot of money for your campaign. The process incentivizes people to engage in the process in a way that enhances their fundraising capabilities.

How the legislative process has changed since he first served in Congress in the 1970s:

The legislative process has changed dramatically … Back in the ’70s, 91 percent of all bills that came before the House came through what we call regular order, which [meant] they came through committee under open rule — where anyone could offer any amendment they wanted, and present it, and hear it argued, and have it voted on … [Today] less than five percent of the bills that come before the House of Representatives come under an open rule. From 91 percent all the way down to five percent … The rules and operation of the Congress [now] … make honest and legitimate and open debate virtually impossible.

On the value of legislative debate:

Quite frankly, that’s how you find the common ground — by having an open airing of all the ideas and all the suggestions. And that’s how members get to know each other, and what their real feelings are about issues.

On how committee assignments are made:

There are a number of committees, if you’re not in a safe district, or you’re not a more senior member, you can’t even consider being appointed to one of those committees.

How the congressional schedule has changed since he first served in Congress in the 1970s:

[Back in the ‘70s,] you spent all day either in committee or on the floor of the House listening to your colleagues, getting to know your colleagues. We started on a Monday. We usually finished up on a Friday. And it made it possible — in fact, it made bringing your family with you preferable … And it was not uncommon for members of Congress and their families to get together for a beach outing or a ski outing or a picnic or a pickup softball event … [Today,] if we go in on a Monday, we’re done on Thursday. If we go in on Tuesday, we’re done on Friday. So that sounds like four days a week, right? Wrong.

How the congressional schedule actually works today:

You come in on a Monday or Tuesday — no votes till 6:30. You’ve got all day to raise money. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday — you’re not going to have any votes until 11:30 [or] 1:30. You’ve got all morning to raise money. And those votes are going to be over quickly. And you’ve got all afternoon to raise money … If there’s more than one bill, you don’t have another vote ‘til 5:30, 6:30 in the evening … Now the schedule is perfectly suited for [fundraising].

One political campaign reform he thinks would make Congress function better:

No fundraising when the Congress is in session. A number of states have done that … Members should go to Washington and go to work on the people’s business, not running across the street raising money … I hate to say fundraising is not hard work. It’s very hard work. But it’s not the people’s business.

Two democracy reforms he thinks would increase voter participation:

Online voter registration, I think, would really help with participation. I would go so far as to create a national Election Day a national holiday. It’s the foundation of our economy and our politics and our policy and our society. Why not make it a national holiday, for crying out loud? A lot of countries do that.

Why it’s important to tackle partisan gerrymandering:

They tell us nowadays that only 25 to 30 percent of districts in the country are really competitive — out of 435. Wow! I mean, they should all be competitive! Until we can find a way to do away with gerrymandering, that will not take place … Instead of letting the partisans [draw the lines of congressional districts], I think they should be turned over to independent commissions to create competitive cohesive districts to the extent possible.

On the effects of big money in politics today:

The money in politics [has] really polluted the system. [It’s] polluted the way the Congress works. [It’s] resulted in all kinds of dark, disturbing, negative money that denigrates the people, denigrates the process, distorts the truth, discouraging good people from running for public office. It’s just had a terrible, negative, lethal effect on the general public.

Want to read more about this topic? Check out the full “Why We Left Congress” report, written by Marian Currinder of the R Street Institute and Michael Beckel and Amisa Ratliff of Issue One.