Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (2014–…): Season 3, Episode 7 - Political Fundraising - full transcript

Congressional Fund-raising with guest Steve Israel- Episode explores the ways congress does fund-raising focusing on cold calls, similar to call centers.

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -


Welcome to Last Week Tonight.
I'm John Oliver.

Thank you so much for joining us.
Time for a quick recap of the week.

And we begin with nuclear weapons.

The most terrifying thing you can
stockpile, right after baby dolls.

This week saw the biennial nuclear
security summit in Washington.

All the major world leaders
were there. Almost all of them.

One leader who could make
a huge difference

in securing nuclear material
was a no-show.

Vladimir Putin has once again
snubbed President Obama.

And that is not ideal,
because a nuclear summit

is pretty much the only gathering
where you can legitimately say,

"Man, this would be so much better
if Vladimir Putin were here."

Russia had announced

Putin would be skipping the summit
a year and a half ago.

Normally, you only decline
something that far in advance

if it's a wedding save the date
from your ex-fiancé.

"Nice try, Beth. As it happens,
I am busy seventeen months from now."

"Why? Fuck you, that's why.
You hurt me, Beth."

But even without Putin,

there were plenty of issues regarding
nuclear weapons to talk about.

Just two days before they gathered,
America's potential next president

mentioned that he would be perfectly
comfortable with other countries

becoming nuclear powers,
including Japan and South Korea.

At some point we have to say,
you know what, we're better off

if Japan protects itself
against this maniac in North Korea,

we're better off if South Korea
is going to start to protect itself.

- Saudi Arabia, nuclear weapons ?
- Absolutely.

Absolutely. He says that
with the confidence of a man

who could easily find Saudi Arabia
on the map if, if he was given 3 tries

and the map only included
countries ending with Arabia.

And that's not all !

Trump also refused to rule out
using nuclear weapons in Europe,

for reasons including,
and I quote, "Europe is a big place".

And "it's a big place" is not a good
excuse for using nuclear weapons.

It's barely a good excuse
for peeing in the ocean.

It was clearly extremely important

that the president try and reassure
the rest of the planet

by providing some context
for Trump's remarks.

The person who made the statements
doesn't know much about foreign policy

or nuclear policy, or the Korean
peninsula or the world generally.

President Obama
is basically implying there

that you could fill a book with
the things Donald Trump doesn't know,

that book being the encyclopedia.

But, let's turn now to happier news:
the baseball season started today.

Exactly. It's a romantic time,
because anything is still possible:

the Cubs could win it all, Ichiro could
join the elite three-thousand hit club,

the Philly Phanatic could get waxed
and finally reveal the tight,

slammin' bod he's been hiding
under all that green fur.

He looks good.

There is only one thing that
we can all be sure of this season,

and that is that the New York Yankees
will continue finding ways

to look like the biggest
elitist assholes in all of sport.

This is a team that does things
like blow $275 million on A-Rod,

a man who poses for photos
like this one:

ahoy there, ahoy there, asshole!

It's like that scene from Titanic,
except you're rooting for the sea.

The Yankees even have what they call
a "Legends Club" for elite members,

and their sales pitch for it is as
obnoxious as you'd, as you'd expect.

Legends is an amazing private club.
It's the first 5 rows of our stadium.

First-class accommodations,
five star dining, in-seat service,

an amazing concierge team that assists
with any needs that you do have.

We do have our private suite entrance,
which is for our legends clients.

They access the lobby
before any of our guests.

"We provide priority lobby access !
And for our diamond elite members,"

"we'll drive you to a restaurant
nowhere near the stadium,"

"so you don't have to fraternize
with these baseball-loving peasants."

This is where the Yankees have found
a way to antagonize their own fans.

Because this year, they got rid
of the option to print tickets at home.

And when fans complained
the Yankees' COO, Lonn Trost,

seen here posing in the way you'd
expect a Yankees executive to pose,

he went on the radio and denied
those effects, but in doing so,

threw in a comment
that made it clear

what he thinks of some
of the Yankees' less affluent fans.

If you buy a ticket
in a very premium location,

it's not that we don't want
that fan to sell it,

but that fan is sitting there having
paid a substantial amount of money

and a fan picks it up for a buck
and a half and sits there

and it frustrates
the purchaser of the full amount.

And quite frankly,
the same, the fan

may be someone who has never sat
in a premium location.

So that's a frustration
to our existing fan base.

So rich people couldn't bear to sit
next to people who aren't as rich,

which would be offensive
if you were talking about the opera,

much less a sport whose primary
fashion statement is the goatee.

And that is why the Yankees
make sure no one

gets into their most premium seating
who doesn't belong there.

That explains why so many of
their fanciest seats are often empty.

For the first 3 games of this season,
there will be riffraff in those seats.

Because we bought two legends seats
to the first three games this week.

And they are right in this area,
behind home plate.

And we will sell them to you
for 25 cents apiece, on one condition:

you must dress like you have never
sat in a premium location before.

What that means could be up to you.

Tweet us a photo of what you
and a guest would wear to the game,

with the hashtag "I have never sat
in a premium location".

Include a hashtag
for the game you'd want to attend,

so that's Monday,
Wednesday, or Thursday.

And we will pick the winners,
based on the looks we like the best.

We are legally bound
to give you these contest rules,

as well as mention that the Yankees
are not involved in this contest,

although that should be pretty
fucking obvious by now.

Enjoy the game
and please give A-Rod our best !

And now this...

And now, did you know CNBC's
Joe Kernan has a personal trainer ?

I'm cross training,
and I've trained with Frayne.

He's the Marquis de Sade
of personal trainers.

- You have broad shoulders.
- They're getting broader with Eddie.

I have a trainer,
the Marquis de Sade of trainers.

You don't train with Eddie Frayne.

He might be too tough for you.
I'll show you what I do.

Here with some tips
is my trainer Eddie Frayne.

People do not do enough
for the lower back.

I wanna be Jack Wallay.

I wanna be doing
one-armed push ups.

Just like that, working his triceps.
For the straight leg lifts...

When you train with Frayne, it's hard.
I'm going to see if it's possible.

Straight legs, keep it straight !

You did 30 and I did 40,
and you were saying let's go to break.

- You're involved in this next one.
- No, I'm not.

- You can use the girly knee push-ups.
- No.

Let's get a check on the markets.

Moving on. Our main story tonight
concerns political fundraising.

This is not gonna be about how money
corrupts presidential candidates.

You can read much more on your most
annoying friend's Facebook posts.

It's a comment on a picture of a baby.
What is wrong with you? Take it down.

I would like to talk instead
about congressional fundraising,

which is much less covered,
but no less astonishing.

In the 2014 election cycle,
candidates for the house and senate

raised a combined $1.7 billion,
that's more than it costs

to buy 230 million tubes
of hemorrhoidal cooling gel.

And it's somehow
even more upsetting.

Interestingly, much of that money
has to be raised, one way or another,

by the politicians themselves, which
they have complained about for years,

and, and say that it can be
the worst part of their job.

I hated raising money.
Hated it.

It's painful frankly,
to continually ask people for money.

If Don and I can tell you
how many hours we spend,

with our good colleagues
on our side of the issues,

talking about raising money,
it would be an embarrassment.

It is an embarrassment.

An embarrassment !
That is a strong statement.

Although, he may be overestimating
Congress' capacity for embarrassment.

'Cause we are talking about a place
where these moments happened !

Do you like green eggs and ham ?

I do not like them, Sam I am.

Two bits, four bits,
six bits, a dollar.

All for the gators, stand up
and holler. Go gators.

Meet the Mets, meet the Mets,
step right up and greet the Mets.

Don't know much about chemistry,
don't know much toxicology,

don't know what's ammonium nitrate,
except it's easy to detonate,

but I do know that IST
was used to increase our security,

what a much safer world
this could be.

Don't know much
about the gas chlorine...

God ! What is most shocking
is that he read the room and decided,

"You know what ? I think
they want to hear another verse".

"I'm going to do another verse here.
I'm reading this room, I'm doing it."

But the sheer amount of time
politicians spend fundraising

is not just embarrassing,
it's horrifying.

Some say the members can spend
25 to 50 percent of their time on it.

Former senate majority leader
Tom Daschle once guessed that,

in the two years before an election,

senators can spend two thirds
of their time raising money.

And if two thirds of the work
you do is strictly about the money,

you're not a legislator,
you're Robert De Niro at that point.

Tonight, let's look
at where that time actually goes.

And let's begin with the most obvious
form of fundraising: fundraisers.

These are usually shitty parties
in DC bars, restaurants or townhouses.

The Sunlight Foundation estimates
that in the last election cycle,

members of Congress
held over 2 800 fundraisers.

is like Rod Stewart's haircut.

Party in the front,
party in the back.

Frankly, too much party
and no business anywhere to be found.

Fundraisers are so ubiquitous in DC,

you could conceivably construct
a whole day around them,

which is what former
Iowa representative Bruce Braley did

on September 20th, 2012,
when at 8:30 a.m.,

he held a fundraising breakfast,
followed by a fundraising lunch,

and ending
with a fundraising evening reception.

He was less a member of Congress

than he was a sentient storage
container for canapés.

Fundraisers are such an integral part
of DC's economy,

some restaurants derive a decent chunk
of their income from hosting them.

Look at Johnny's Half Shell,
a restaurant blocks from the Capitol.

In the past 10 years, a whopping
948 congressional fundraisers

have been held there.

It is almost inevitable
that your elected representative

will have spent at least some time
in a place that markets itself thusly.

Here's to the champagne
and the oysters at Johnny's.

- Here's to Johnny's crab cakes.
- Here's to the sliders at happy hour.

Here's to the hard shell crabs
at Johnny's half shell !

Here's to Johnny's !

Here's to you,
and your time at Johnny's Half Shell.

He is a significant figure in DC !

Influential decisions are being made
under the watchful eye

of a man who looks like Jon Bon Jovi's
less talented step-cousin

Jim Ban Jarvi.

Some politicians even turn
their own personal milestones

into fundraising opportunities.

Like republican Andy Barr,
who held a 41st birthday fundraiser,

which cost a minimum
of $500 per person to attend.

Or there's Florida representative
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,

who turned her 30th wedding
anniversary into a fundraiser,

an event that is almost
breathtaking in its sadness.

A 30th wedding anniversary should not
be about raising political capital.

It should be about eating
a largely silent dinner,

killing two bottles of wine,
forgetting to have sex...

And falling asleep to a Friends rerun.
Honor the anniversary and do it right.

And in perhaps the most pathetic bid
for hipness available,

many members of congress will even
stage fundraisers at pop concerts.

Taylor Swift not only changes
the music business, it makes money,

and so much
so that some of Washington's elites

are capitalizing
on the pop princesses' 1989 Tour

which stops over in DC tonight.

We have over ten republicans,
five democrats, three PACs,

all raising money
off this Taylor Swift concert.

Representative Beyer of Virginia
is having a fundraiser.

His daughter turned him
on to Taylor Swift.

He likes her feminist lyrics.
It's why they're moving forward.

Representative Don Beyer held a
fundraiser at a Taylor Swift concert.

I don't know about you,
but this man is not feeling 22.

He is feeling, and looking,
very much 65.

All of this is glamorous
compared to the hours

that politicians spend fundraising
over the phone.

A presentation from the Democratic
Congressional Campaign Committee

to freshmen lawmakers leaked and it
was showing their model schedule,

which suggested four hours
a day of call time, on the phone !

That makes sense if you're trying
to have phone sex with Sting.

Have you come yet ? It's been
three hours. Have you come yet ?

I've got stuff to do, Gordon.
This can't be my day.

Lawmakers have even been pulled out
of hearings to go do that call time.

The first week I was down here
we were having a hearing on education

and my chief of staff said:
"You have to leave."

We went into the anti-room
and I said "Where do I have to go ?"

She goes:
"You have to go make phone calls."

I looked at her and I went:
"This is my first hearing."

"You're asking me to leave ?
How am I gonna learn anything ?"

She was a rookie legislator. She
needed to learn how to do her job.

Knicks don't pull Kristaps Porzingis
out of a game

so he can go make cold calls
to season ticket holders,

that would not be the best use
of Kristaps Porzingis's time.

If that sounds like a dehumanizing
process, rest assured: it is.

I felt used when I had to go raise
money. I was embarrassed.

I thought it was ugly,

My staff kept saying, you got to go
do it. I said, I don't like it.

You get a Rolodex
and you get to dial numbers

of jerks you've never heard of
to get money out of them.

He's right. If you want to get money
out of a bunch of jerks,

you shouldn't have to call them when
you can simply open a vape shop.


And if you're wondering why he said
he had to go outside the building,

according to federal law,
members of congress

can't solicit or receive
donations in their offices.

Each party's committee has set up
call rooms in their headquarters,

just a few blocks from the Capitol.

We couldn't find footage from
those rooms, but they sound grim.

They've got cubicles and a headset
and they often have a minder

who makes sure that they don't
take too long on each call.

After a few hours it starts
to smell like a locker room.

Yeah. Half the people in that room
spent their morning

slurping down oysters in an 80s hockey
player's sweaty crab shack.

Just about all lawmakers
have to do this.

Even those like Eleanor Holmes Norton,
in ludicrously safe seats.

She regularly gets re-elected
with over 80 percent of the vote,

but despite that, she wound up
leaving this voicemail for a lobbyist:

I was surprised to see we don't have
a record, so far as I can tell,

of your having given to me despite
my long and deep work.

It's been my major work

on the committee and subcommittee
has been in your sector.

I'm candidly calling to ask
for a contribution.

That is so depressing to hear.
Even before you think about her

calling from a room filled with the
odor of Steny Hoyer's shrimp-burps.

Her seat is so safe, she barely needs
campaign funds for herself.

Members are still expected
to pay dues to their own party,

which can be distributed
to candidates in tougher races.

Buzzfeed got its hands on
a DCCC spreadsheet,

showing "The amount... The committee
expects each member to pay",

with figures ranging from
$125 000 at the low end,

all the way up
to $800 000 at the top.

So is it any wonder that politicians
are hitting up their customer base

harder than a Girl Scout
with gambling debts ?

Two boxes of Samoas ?
Fuck that.

Four boxes or I walk. Four boxes.
You get four boxes.

I know where you live.
Four for you.

If you're trying to rack up dollars,
that can affect the kind of people

you're targeting on the phone,
as senator Murphy explains:

I'm not calling anybody who doesn't
give me at least 1 000 dollars.

The people I'm calling
are folks that are making

a half a million to a million dollars

and they have different problems
than everybody else.

That is a huge problem.

It cannot help but affect
the way you see the world.

If you call donors rich
enough that their main concerns are

estate taxes, or which Belgian kimono
their cat will wear that day.

That's a good choice, though.
But to be fair,

direct fundraising by candidates
is just one part of a system

that includes Super PACs
and so-called "dark money".

To be even fairer,
it is still the largest part.

And regulating campaign finance
is going to be difficult.

There's the Supreme Court's
1976 Buckley vs. Valeo decision,

which held that spending money
is a form of speech.

There are times when that's true.

A fifty-year-old man spending money
on a convertible is loudly saying:

"I would like to sexually disappoint
a woman half my age."

We are hearing him loud
and clear, he's being heard.

While both sides
agree they hate this,

neither wants
to unilaterally back down first.

It's basically a cold war, but worse.
At least in the real Cold War,

we got a trip to the moon and
the 3rd best Rocky villain out of it.

Which is not to say that there are not
attempts to address the problem.

Democrats pushed the Disclose Act,
to force transparency on dark money,

and one republican
has something called the Stop Act,

which would prohibit members of
congress from asking for donations.

Those would be small fixes. A larger
idea is Government By The People Act,

which would give tax credits and
provide public funding

by matching small donations
at a ratio of at least 6 to 1.

Before you get too excited, two
slight caveats: first, we asked,

and it would cost an estimated
$500 million a year, which is a lot.

gives it a zero percent chance
in our current congress.

Makes you wonder if they tried to find
something more harsh than zero,

like "negative zero"
or "aw hell zero !"

Or just a zero
with a frowny face in it.

That's frustrating, because people in
congress are the ones complaining

about the time they are forced
to waste on fundraising.

Israel, a democrat from Long Island,
announced his retirement, saying:

"I can't spend another day making
another call begging for money."

Since he is leaving, I figured
he might be willing to shine a light

on some of the aspects
of fundraising we don't usually see.

I sat down with Steve Israel.
Take a look.

Thank you so much
for agreeing to talk with me.

Let's start with political
fundraising. In your prime,

how many of those fundraisers
were you having to go to a year ?

Over 16 years, I've done,
just for my own reelection,

1 600 fundraising events,
actual events.

One every three days,
more or less.

Over 16 years. That's a lot.

I'm going to say three words to you,
congressman: Johnny's Half Shell.

- I know it well.
- No shit you do.

What's it like in there ?

It's like any other restaurant
in America...

Which has lots of people
in suits raising money.

You have candidates and members
of Congress and supporters

who are contributing a thousand
dollars for having some shellfish.

It's interesting to me how every
working Congressperson in this city

has a basic understanding
of Johnny's Half Shell.

I don't think I've ever had
a fundraiser for myself.

At that restaurant.
I just don't remember.

In 2011,
you had a breakfast fundraiser

at the Half Shell
that started at 8:30 a.m.

No one goes to a seafood restaurant
at 8:30 in the morning

without expecting
something in return.

No one is saying:
"I was gonna be there anyway"

"to have my breakfast shrimp,
I'll swing by Steve's thing."

And that is the problem
with the system,

is that people believe that
if they are in that room,

having supported a campaign,
that they get access.

And in case access to Steve Israel
wasn't enticing enough,

a review of his fundraiser invites
threw up a common theme.

Some Congressmen have barbecue,
fishing trips. What was your theme ?

- I did a Long Island pizza night...
- But there was another theme ?

- Yes, what was it ?
- I think you know what it was.

I'm anxious to know.

You had an annual
Long Island wine trip,

Long Island wine tasting in DC,
Long Island wine and cigar tasting,

I hope those were not
Long Island cigars.

An event called
Chinese food and politics,

where you washed down your
General Tso's chicken with a glass...

No, you cannot bring Long Island
wine to Chinese food.

Does Long Island wine not pair well
with Chinese food ?

- Not Washington Chinese food.
- What with ? Street violence ?

You're not going to get me to say one
negative thing about Long Island wine.

I hadn't come here
to talk about terrible wine,

but the engine room
of congressional fundraising.

The congressional call center...
How important is that place ?

You've gotta have
a place to make those calls.

Paint me a word picture.
Is there motivational posters:

"Hang in there, try not to think
much about what you're doing !"

You have a bunch of cubicles set up
and those cheap fabric dividers,

you sit at a little desk, you have
a phone, an assistant next to you,

and you have a call book
with past donors and their records.

Your assistant gets a supporter on
the phone, gives the phone to you,

you engage in polite conversation
and then you get to the point,

you hang up, flip the page
to the next donor,

and you continue until you have the
resources in order to get re-elected.

- My god, that's depressing.
- Not what our founders had in mind.

How do you train people ?
Is there a script with small talk,

and how they could be part
of the solution ?

Every member has their approach.

I got to the point and then
have a civilized conversation.

It makes sense, it's just like
someone giving you a massage

and starting with the hand job,
and then working the shoulders.

It's fine, it's just unexpected.

Everybody has their style
and preferences.

How much time between
hanging up and the next call ?

You gotta keep moving.
If you are in a competitive district,

and you've gotta
raise 1.5 million dollars,

you have to raise a certain
amount every quarter.

You break it down to
an amount every month.

You break it down to
an amount of money every week,

and to a certain amount
of money in every hour of call time.

This call center sounds like
a shitty telemarketing operation.

It is a form of torture,

and the real victims of this torture
have become the people,

they believe that they don't have
a voice in this system.

Most good telemarketing operations

have a boss who holds
people's feet to the fire.

- Who was that boss for you ?
- The prospect of losing my election.

To a Republican who would undo
the work I did for the middle class.

I'm getting to the point that
you were the chairman.

Yes. Chairman of the Democratic
Congressional Campaign Committee.

So you were the one pushing
people to hit quotas ?

I had a responsibility to tell them,
you need to spend time raising money

to come to Washington
to change the system.

And he must've told them that a lot,
because in Israel's time as chairman,

he pushed members of the DCCC
to hit record fundraising levels.

We outraised the NRCC
by 16.2 million dollars.

It can't have been easy to hate
something he was so good at.

Like finding out this guy hates
having bees on his face.

He's not wrong,
it's absolutely repulsive.

It's weird he chose
to do it in the first place.

With his congressional career
coming to an end,

it was time to toast Steve Israel
in the most appropriate way.

I brought some Long island wine
in the traditional bag.

It's a very good vintage.
Is that a 2016 ?

Does it go back further than that ?

I wouldn't recommend drinking it
out of the bag.

I would never do this to a glass.

Not bad for wine in a bag.

Sure, that's fair.

What better end
to a bittersweet career

than with the bittersweet
taste of North Fork Chardonnay ?

Savor every last drop, Steve.
You've earned it.

That's our show, thanks for watching.
See you next week, goodnight !