Why Do We Reward Politicians Behaving Badly?

In Congress, bad behavior pays.

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Building a hefty campaign chest is easy for congressional candidates, so long as they follow the contemporary rule: Bad behavior pays.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican known for suggesting that then-candidate Barack Obama held “anti-American” views, has raised $11,130,358 this campaign cycle--more than any other congressional candidate and vastly more than the $1,466,596 average raised by a sitting member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Bachmann, a Tea Party movement favorite, also earned a “pants on fire” reprimand by PolitiFact for her inaccurate claim that the healthcare reform bill prohibits people from buying private health insurance after a certain date.

[See where Bachmann gets her campaign money.]

Right up there in the top eight biggest fundraisers is Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat whose national reputation has been built by making caustic and crazy comments demonizing the GOP, including his assertion that the GOP’s “backup plan” for healthcare is for people to die.

He says:

If you get sick, America, the Republican plan is this: Die quickly. That’s right. The Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick.

It’s a provocative enough attack at a campaign rally, but Grayson made his remarks on the floor of the House. And Grayson, otherwise a little-known lawmaker, raked in $5,120,840 in contributions this campaign cycle. [See where Grayson gets his campaign money.]

Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, also does not feel constrained by the niceties of public congressional debate on the floor of one of the greatest symbols of democracy in the world. Wilson yelled out “you lie!” to Obama as the president was delivering a live, televised speech on healthcare. The House formally reprimanded Wilson for his outburst. Donors have pumped $4,582,646 into his campaign. [See who his donors are.]

And it’s not just local boosterism; the Center for Responsive Politics tallies show that in all three cases, much of the cash is coming from out of state. In Bachmann’s case, 51 percent of individual donations over $200 came from outside Minnesota, 42 percent of such donors gave to Grayson, and 68 percent of individuals who forked over $200 or more to Wilson were from outside South Carolina.

Noise and outrageous comments get media coverage, especially in this heated campaign season. But anyone who has parented or babysat a 2-year-old knows not to reward tantrums with attention. So why are so many people giving cash to congressmen behaving badly?