Yesterday People For the American way joined more than fifty other organizations in sending a letter to President Obama asking him to issue an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose all of their political spending.
Right now, corporations with government contracts are able to funnel unlimited sums of dark money to influence the elections of those who can put pressure on the officials deciding who is awarded future contracts. Contracts should be awarded to those best for the job, not those who can shell out the most political cash.
But with the stroke of a pen, President Obama could require that government contractors disclose their political spending. This would increase transparency and accountability in our democracy and bring us closer to the “better politics” the president called for in his State of the Union address – a politics in which we “spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.”
And we are indeed drowning in dark money. In 2014's ten most competitive Senate contests, more than 70 percent of outside money spent in support of the winner was from dark money groups.
As the letter notes,
Six years into your presidency, and five years after the Supreme Court issued its tragically misguided ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, we’re now living in a Wild West campaign spending world… Against this backdrop, it is imperative that you act.
In an interview with Vox released today, President Obama expressed his support for constitutional remedies to our country’s worsening money in politics problem.
The president said:
I would love to see some constitutional process that would allow us to actually regulate campaign spending the way we used to, and maybe even improve it.
This isn’t the first time the president has weighed in on the push for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United. In 2012 during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, President Obama made a splash when he said that “over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United.” As the Vox article notes, today’s comments go a step beyond his previous remarks.
Agree with the president? Share our graphic and show your support:
You can watch the full interview with President Obama here:
PFAW activists joined with allies from Public Citizen, Open Democracy, and others last Thursday at public hearings on New Hampshire House and Senate bills calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United.
About 50 supporters of a constitutional amendment attended each hearing, creating standing room only and overflow in the small room reserved for the House bill hearing.
Speakers included small business owners, activists who passed local town resolutions in favor of an amendment, and high school students. Not a single person testified in opposition to the proposed legislation, underscoring the deep support among Americans of all backgrounds for fixing our big money system.
The bills (HB 371 and SB 136) call for the state legislature to recommend a constitutional amendment to the state’s congressional delegation, as well as for public hearings in geographically diverse areas across the state to decide the exact language for such an amendment.
A committee in the New Hampshire House will vote on the bill in an executive session on Wednesday afternoon, while the appropriate Senate committee has not yet set a date for a vote. PFAW activists and allies will be back at the state capitol next week for a lobby day to meet with key representatives and senators on Wednesday, February 4th.
Interested in joining us? For more information and to RSVP, email Lindsay Jakows at email@example.com.
On Monday the push for the Democracy For All Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United v. FEC and allow legislators to put reasonable limits on money in elections, became a bipartisan effort in Congress when Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) signed on as a cosponsor of the legislation.
While this is a historic step that deserves celebration, in many ways it is long overdue. Washington is the only place where the fight to get big money out of politics is a partisan issue, and it hasn’t always been that way.
Similar amendments proposed in the past have found bipartisan support in Congress, including from Rep. Jones. Republican elected officials across the country have been advocating at the local and state level to get big money out of politics. In fact, a recent report from Free Speech For People highlights the more than 100 Republican officials nationwide who favor an amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United.
Among voters, it’s also a bipartisan movement, with Americans of all political stripes speaking out against a democracy unduly influenced by corporations and billionaires. A 2014 poll found that in Senate battleground states, almost three in four voters favor a constitutional amendment to undo the harm of decisions like Citizens United, including majorities in “even the reddest states.” This support did not waver among Republican voters polled: amendment supporters outnumbered opponents by a 26 percent margin.
Still, Rep. Jones’ decision to become a cosponsor of the Democracy For All Amendment is an important step forward. Money in politics is an issue that affects all of us, and one that Americans of all political backgrounds feel strongly about. It’s only fitting that our federal elected officials in both parties listen to the voices of their constituents and join the movement to take our democratic process back from the grips of wealthy special interests.
On Wednesday (1/21), at a press event on Capitol Hill, Congressional leaders focused on solutions to the money in politics problem by announcing the reintroduction of a host of pro-democracy bills in the 114th Congress, including small donor empowerment, disclosure, and a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics. For the first time, members of the House and Senate introduced these separate bills together as a democracy reform package, emphasizing in their remarks that the individual pieces of legislation reinforce one another in creating a democracy truly of, by and for the people.
One key theme of the event was the American public’s growing appreciation that money in politics is an underlying, systemic issue that must be addressed in order to confront the many important challenges of our time. States and municipalities across the country are already passing resolutions and ballot initiatives supporting reform, and millions of Americans are on record in favor of these solutions.
Reform groups are also coming together around a range of approaches to tackling big money in politics. More than 130 organizations have signed onto a Unity Statement of Principles, expressing their support for the values underlying many of the solutions discussed at the event today. The unity statement serves as a foundation for collaboration among diverse organizations, including environmental groups, labor unions, social and economic justice groups, business groups, and communities of faith. By mobilizing these broad constituencies around a common set of solutions a political force with the potential to enact pro-democracy reforms can be set in motion.
Members that spoke included Sen. Tom Udall, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Sen. Jon Tester, Rep. Ted Deutch, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Rep. John Sarbanes, Rep. David Price, and Rep. Michael Capuano. The bills reintroduced include the Democracy for All amendment, DISCLOSE Act, Government by the People Act, Real Time Transparency Act, and Shareholder Protection Act, among others. In the coming months PFAW will continue to work with a broad set of partners to mobilize around these solutions in Congress.
This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.
Five years ago this week, the Supreme Court handed down its damaging decision in Citizens United v. FEC. The ruling, which allowed wealthy interests to buy unprecedented influence in elections, was and still is deeply unpopular. But the issue of money in politics remains, for some people, relegated to a category of "someone else's issue" -- the policy wonks in Washington, the researchers who spend long hours sifting through the latest campaign data. "It's their issue," we think.
In reality, the decisions like Citizens United that paved the way for the big-money election system we have today affect our lives every day, even when those connections can be hard to see.
Last month, Demos released a report laying bare some of those links, especially as they affect people of color. Their analysis highlighted how big money in politics undermines racial equality:
Elections funded primarily by wealthy, white donors mean that candidates as a whole are less likely to prioritize the needs of people of color; and that candidates of color are less likely to run for elected office, raise less money when they do, and are less likely to win.
The report point outs that in some ways, this is not new: As long as our country has been a country, people of color have been shortchanged by our democratic system. Our history is littered with violent retaliation and unrelenting roadblocks for many who tried to actively participate in our democracy. But those setting a political agenda that shortchanges people of color haven't always had unlimited billionaire and corporate political dollars backing them up.
What does this mean in real people's lives? It means more mass incarceration, for one, the harm of which African Americans disproportionately bear. Wealthy people are more likely than low-income people to support the construction of more prisons, and studies have found that the rich have greater influence on policy outcomes. Private prison companies, whose bottom lines depend on getting people behind bars, spend millions to influence policymakers, and groups like the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have pushed for tougher sentencing laws. But it's often people of color who pay the price, when family members and friends suddenly disappear from their communities.
It also means a stagnant minimum wage, which women of color are disproportionately likely to be earning. While the public strongly supports raising the minimum wage, groups like the Chamber of Commerce, which opposes raising it, can afford to pour millions into elections and hold serious sway with lawmakers. Though not immediately apparent, there is a direct connection to the amount of money a low-income woman takes home in her paycheck and the Supreme Court decisions governing our big-money political system.
And the list could go on and on. At the end of the day, money in politics cannot be "someone else's issue." Because it distorts who is heard by our elected officials, it affects what's in your paycheck, who ends up in prison, what kind of health care we have access to, what kind of environment we leave for our children, and much more.
That's why one piece of the larger fight for racial justice must be reforming the rules governing money in elections. It's fitting that we mark the fifth anniversary of Citizens United on the same week we remember the life of Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, in his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, King said, "Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy."
In the wake of Citizens United, the struggle to make those promises real has become even more urgent.
It’s hard to know where to begin when running down the list of harmful special interest giveaways in the omnibus spending bill narrowly passed by the House yesterday. Earlier this week, we wrote about a rider in the bill that would allow the amount of money rich donors can give to political parties to skyrocket. The legislation moving through Congress also includes a provision that would have the effect of allowing mountaintop mining companies to keep filling Appalachian streams with toxic waste. Yet another rider is a “Wall Street giveaway,” actually drafted by Citigroup’s lobbyists, that would repeal a piece of financial regulation and let banks take part in more kinds of high-risk trading deals with government backed money.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren railed against the Wall Street rider on the Senate floor:
[Americans] see a Congress that works just fine for the big guys, but it won’t lift a finger to help them. If big companies can deploy armies of lawyers and lobbyists to get the Congress to vote for special deals that benefit themselves, then we will simply confirm the view of the American people that the system is rigged.
It is, as Sen. Warren says, hard not to think that “the system is rigged” when members of Congress use a spending bill to sneak through major policy shifts that benefit wealthy political donors, Wall Street executives, and big businesses, while leaving the majority of Americans with an even weaker political voice.
This is especially true when you consider that those who voted for the rider-filled spending deal were, by and large, the members who received bigger contributions from the benefitting industries. The Washington Post compared the House spending bill votes with Center for Responsive Politics data on campaign contributions to each representative from the finance, insurance, and real estate industries. What they found is disheartening, but not surprising:
On average, members of Congress who voted yes received $322,000 from those industries. Those who voted no? $162,000.
And that doesn’t even take into account the dark money whose source is unknown to the public (but likely known by the officials who benefit from it).
It’s one more example of the influence that money can buy in our current system, where big gifts from corporate spenders pave the way for corporate political victories. When Wall Street lobbyists can literally write the laws they want, no matter the impact on ordinary Americans, it’s clear that we need serious reform to the rules governing money in politics.
The infusion of big money into our democracy is helping to perpetuate racial inequalities, according to a report released yesterday by Demos. As we have seen in recent election cycles, the most aggressive and influential political donors are overwhelmingly white and affluent, paving the way for elected officials to be beholden to a donor class and far less concerned about the needs of most Americans.
While the economic biases of money in politics are clear, the report, called “Stacked Deck: How the Racial Bias in Our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy,” also highlights some unsettling information on how elections dominated by wealthy special interests impede efforts for a more racially diverse and responsive political system:
Elections funded primarily by wealthy, white donors mean that candidates as a whole are less likely to prioritize the needs of people of color; and that candidates of color are less likely to run for elected office, raise less money when they do, and are less likely to win. Ultimately, people of color are not adequately represented by elected officials.
• A recent study of black candidate success concluded that “the underrepresentation of blacks is driven by constraints on their entry onto the ballot” and that the level of resources in the black community is “an important factor for shaping the size of the black candidate pool.”
• Candidates of color raised 47 percent less money than white candidates in 2006 state legislative races, and 64 percent less in the South.
• Latino candidates for state House raised less money than non-Latinos in 67 percent of the states where Latinos ran in the 2004 election cycle.
• In a typical election cycle, 90 percent or more of the candidates who raise the most money win their races.
• Ninety percent of our elected leaders are white, despite the fact that people of color are 37 percent of the U.S. population.
• In a 2011 study, researchers found that white state legislators of both major political parties were less likely to reply to letters received from assumed constituents with apparently African American names (like “DeShawn Jackson”).
Tellingly, a governing body that skews heavily white also creates policies that can have detrimental impacts on racial minorities. The report also compiled case studies that demonstrate how big money disrupts progress on racial equality on a variety of issues, including:
• Private Prisons and Incarceration. Incarceration in the U.S. has increased by 500 percent over the past three decades, with people of color vastly over-represented in our nation’s prisons and jails. This is the result of policies that have put more people in jail for longer sentences despite dropping crime rates, policies boosting the bottom line of the growing private prison industry.
• The Subprime Lending Crisis. Because of rampant discriminatory lending practices, the subprime-lending crisis hit people of color especially hard. Banks and other mortgage lenders used millions of dollars of political contributions and lobbying to weaken and circumvent consumer-friendly regulations, resulting in the largest loss of wealth in communities of color in American history.
• The Minimum Wage. The federal minimum wage has remained stagnant, losing real value over the past several decades. Raising the wage to $10.10 an hour would lift more than 3.5 million workers of color out of poverty, but Congress has instead prioritized policies favored by the wealthy.
As money continues to dominate the process by which we elected public officials, our government moves further away from the true definition of a democracy and continue to serve only a very narrow segment of Americans.
The government spending bill released by the House last night includes a rider that would drastically increase the amount of money the super-rich can give to national party committees. The language included in the spending deal would allow wealthy donors to give ten times the current limit to political parties.
Adam Smith at Public Campaign put the potential new limits into perspective in a powerful graphic:
With the new annual individual party limit expected to be more than six times the median household income, it’s clear that this shift is simply about handing the wealthiest political donors even more power and access. A tiny fraction of the country already dominates political spending; these changes would make it even harder for ordinary Americans to have a seat at the table.
What’s more, these provisions, which would have major implications for the health of our democratic process, were not even debated by Congress. They were simply snuck into an omnibus spending bill – a quiet attack that threatens to further undermine what’s left of our country’s common-sense rules limiting big money in politics.
After the midterm elections, exit polls found that nearly two-thirds of voters said that our system already favors the wealthy. Americans are ready for a government that works for everyone. But it looks like what we’re getting instead are Congressional leaders increasing committed to big money donors at the expense of everyone else.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is poised to become the new Senate Majority Leader when Republicans take over the Senate in January, is well known for his opposition to limits on big money in politics – whether through his unabashed support for the disastrous Citizens United ruling or his filibusters to prevent Senate votes on laws requiring more campaign finance disclosure. Now, before he even becomes Majority Leader, McConnell has already tried to further dismantle commonsense rules on money in elections.
McConnell attempted to add a rider to an omnibus appropriations bill – which must pass in order to prevent another government shutdown – that would “effectively chip away at direct contribution limits for candidates.” After opposition from sitting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Rules Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-NY), Senator McConnell has backed off his proposal for now. Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall. McConnell wants to further deregulate the spending of private money in political campaigns.
Under current law, contributions to candidates in a two-year cycle are limited to $5,200 per donor. Donors can also give $20,000 to state party committees and more than $60,000 to national party committees. Currently candidates are limited in their ability to coordinate spending with the party committees that support them. If passed, McConnell’s measure would have effectively allowed party committees to fully coordinate with candidates in spending campaign funds.
While Senate Democrats rejected the rider, Sen. McConnell’s actions clearly show his intentions to further roll back existing campaign finance laws and threaten efforts to limit big money in politics when Republicans take charge of the Senate in January. This is likely a preview of what’s in store for us in the coming years.
Small business owners are in favor of reforming our current campaign finance system, according to a new opinion poll from the Small Business Majority. In a nationwide survey last month, 77 percent of small business employers said that “big businesses have a significant impact on government decisions and the political process,” and nearly as many (72 percent) said they believe major changes are necessary to reform campaign finance laws. Only four percent of respondents said they believe no changes are necessary.
Yesterday Sam Becker from the Wall Street Cheat Sheet highlighted the conclusions of the survey:
[T]here is significant concern about the political and economic landscape, and the growing influence of corporate power on the parts of small business owners. With nearly three-quarters of small businesses saying they feel that they are at a disadvantage because of corporate influence in politics, it lends extra credence to the notion that our election process — which typically tends to cater heavily to the small business crowd — is in need of some serious reforms.
This is a good reminder that when enormously powerful corporate interests claim to speak for “the business community,” they are not necessarily speaking for the small businesses that play such an important role in our economy and in our communities. The results of this survey underscore the idea that campaign finance reform enjoys broad support among Americans of diverse professions and backgrounds. Religious organizations, labor unions, and business associations – in addition to many groups in the progressive nonprofit community – are mobilizing around solutions to big money in politics. These solutions include transparency in political donations and public financing of elections, as well as a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United v. FEC, which opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending in politics.
Today Right Wing Watch reported on Citizens United president David Bossie bragging that the Supreme Court decision bearing the organization’s name “leveled the playing field, and we’re very proud of the impact that had in last night’s election.”
It’s pretty hard to figure how Citizens United, the 2010 decision that opened the floodgates for unlimited outside political spending, could be understood to have “leveled the playing field.” As outside spending has skyrocketed in the years since that disastrous decision, it has become increasingly hard to hear the voices of everyday Americans over the roar of big money. Far from leveling the field, decisions like Citizens United have drastically tilted the field even more toward wealthy special interests and away from ordinary people.
But Bossie is right about one thing: Citizens United certainly had a big impact on the 2014 midterms. In an election where Republicans beat Democrats across the board, the millions spent by conservative outside groups “dwarfed” that spent by liberal groups, Politico’s Kenneth Vogel noted today. “Establishment Republican money finally got what it paid for,” he wrote.
That Bossie is proud of the decision’s impact on an election expected to go down as the most expensive midterm in history reveals a very different agenda behind the conservative organization’s work. Hint: it’s not about a level playing field.
With the Kentucky Senate race a major point of focus in the upcoming midterms, and potentially determining control of the Senate, the issue of big money in politics has been repeatedly raised in debates and interviews by Sen. Mitch McConnell’s challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell, for his part, has defended Citizens United v FEC and the influence of big money in politics.
It’s not hard to see why. A recent article by the Center for Public Integrity details the enormous amount of cash that has been spent in support of Sen. McConnell’s reelection campaign by outside “dark money” groups. One group in particular, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, has spent $14 million since the beginning of 2013. Groups like the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition are granted tax-exempt status by the IRS as “social welfare organizations” and are not required to disclose their donors.
According to The Center for Public Integrity:
Despite having effectively no physical presence, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition now ranks among the largest social welfare nonprofits in Kentucky — bringing in more money, according to Internal Revenue Service records, than some of Kentucky’s more high-profile nonprofits, such as the Kentucky School Boards Association and the Kentucky Derby Festival, the group behind two weeks’ worth of events surrounding the Kentucky Derby.
Of the more than 12,000 ads put on air by the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, every single one of them specifically mentions either McConnell or Grimes. About half, 53 percent, expressed approval of Sen. McConnell while the remainder criticized Grimes. These massive ad buys have all occurred since early 2013. Prior to then the organization was almost inactive. Incorporated in 2008, during its first five years the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition never reported more than $50,000 in annual receipts.
The article continues:
When it applied for tax-exempt status as a social welfare nonprofit, the group told the IRS that it did not have any plans to spend any money “attempting to influence” the election of any political candidates. It added that it would be “operated exclusively for public and social welfare purposes.”
The McConnell campaign has refused to acknowledge or discuss the impact of the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition until recently, after a mid-October debate, when a campaign staff member responded to a question about how Sen. McConnell would be doing without the support from the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, replying “We’d be winning just like we are right now.” Recent polling shows McConnell and Grimes locked in a close race, with McConnell leading by just a few percentage points.
Without reforming the way elections are financed, shadowy dark money groups like the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition will continue to funnel millions of dollars into elections on the local, state and federal level. While the Supreme Court may have ruled that money is speech, most Americans don’t buy it. A majority of the public thinks there is too much money in politics and three in four people support a Constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United v FEC. Whether this overwhelming support for reform translates to progressive candidates getting elected next week remains yet to be seen.
One thing, however, is clear. Mitch McConnell doesn’t just favor the current system of campaign finance: he benefits from it.
This weekend Common Cause Florida Chairman Peter Butzin published an op-ed calling out Florida Republicans such as Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush for repeatedly ducking questions on climate change while taking big money from dirty energy donors to fund their campaigns. Butzin noted:
Rising sea levels threaten all of Florida’s popular coastal areas and could alter the freshwater supply that feeds our cities and agriculture. Too many elected officials not only refuse to address climate change, they won’t even acknowledge it as legitimate. Meanwhile, they happily take campaign checks from business interests that benefit the most from their inaction.
Fossil fuel interests spent $116 million nationally on political campaigns in 2012, and are on track to spend even more in 2014. Since many of Florida’s major population centers are along the coastline and are barely above sea level, climate change presents a particularly high stakes risk for residents of the state.
At the end of his op-ed, Butzin highlights the important connection between action on climate change and campaign finance reform.
If we really want to save our state and our planet we must first reform the system we use to elect our representatives in Washington and Tallahassee. Floridians need a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics. Once that happens, Florida politicians will have no excuse to deny the science of climate change.
You can read the full op-ed here: http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article3358904.html#storylink=cpy
In Congressional races across the country, the issue of big money in elections is making its way into campaign speeches, debates and media coverage. Hundreds of millions have already been spent by anonymous sources through shadowy “dark money” groups that aren’t required to disclose their donors, and this influx of untraceable money will undoubtedly escalate as Election Day draws closer.
In Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is locked in a close race with Democratic challenger Alison Grimes, the issue of big money in politics was recently brought up in a televised debate. “The only person Washington’s been benefiting is Senator McConnell and the millionaires and billionaires that have bankrolled him,” Grimes said, with McConnell essentially dismissing the assertion. Indeed, McConnell has repeatedly defended the role of outside money in politics, even going as far as to say that the current state of campaign finance is the “most free and open system we've had in modern times.” PFAW activists on the ground in Kentucky have been hard at work calling McConnell out for his record of blocking efforts to get big money out of politics.
At a recent debate in Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor criticized his Republican challenger Rep. Tom Cotton for taking money from political action groups that receive funding from billionaires like Charles and David Koch. Sen. Pryor went on to call out Rep. Cotton for praising the Koch network at an exclusive event hosted by the brothers this past summer, where he credited his political rise to the support of Koch-funded groups such as Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity.
In Kansas, the home state of Koch Industries, Senate candidate Greg Orman, who is running as an independent, has pledged to support a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United. In response, Republican incumbent Pat Roberts has criticized him in a TV ad for supposedly seeking to take away free speech. Of course, the amendment would do nothing of the sort – it would simply restore legislators’ ability to set reasonable limits on money in elections.
If one thing can be learned from the 2014 midterms, it’s that without reform, the enormous amount of money being spent in elections will continue to grow. The need for a constitutional amendment is becoming increasingly clear, with public support on the rise. Over 550 towns and cities, 16 states, 200 members of Congress and nearly three and a half million people have called for an amendment. By the 5th anniversary of Citizens United, coming up in January, a diverse group of organizations seeks to gather over five million signatures and send a strong statement when the 114th Congress convenes next year.
Have you added your name?
We know from polls that Americans on the left, right and everywhere in between are fed up with the destructive role of big money in politics and are ready for a solution to the unchecked flood of spending that has been released by a recent string of Supreme Court decisions.
But that idea got a surprising endorsement from Rep. Michele Bachmann, the ultraconservative Minnesota Republican, who in response to a question after a speech at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday (10/15), lamented the “ridiculous,” “crazy,” “bizarre and absurd” level of money that is now saturating elections.
Money in politics clip starts 49 minutes in:
“I think it’s ridiculous the amount of money we spend on these elections,” she said. “It’s gone into the level of the bizarre and absurd.”
Recalling her 2010 reelection battle, for which she raised over $13 million, Bachmann said, “That’s crazy money. That’s crazy that any candidate should have to raise that kind of money.”
“Money is buying influence rather than real people going to the polls,” she said.
Bachmann didn’t propose any solution to the surge of money in politics, except hinting at spending limits for campaigns — which were struck down by the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision. But her comments mark a rare occasion in which a Republican member of the 113th Congress – a Tea Partier no less – has gone on record to acknowledge the troubling influence of big money in politics.
It’s no secret that our country’s elections have been taken over by out-of-control spending, and this year’s rapidly approaching midterms are no exception. Maybe that’s why it’s so refreshing to read about some recent progress in the fight to reclaim our democracy from corporations and billionaires. Today the Montgomery County Council in Maryland is set to vote on legislation that would create a system of small-donor public financing for local elections — and it’s looking likely to pass.
It’s a system based on a simple premise: swap in lots of small donations from local community members in place of a handful of large donations from powerful interests. Encourage local people to give money to candidates they support by matching those donations with public funds. Not only does this empower regular people to get involved in campaigns, since they see their dollar going further, but it makes it smart for candidates to seek support from, and be accountable to, their own community members rather than wealthy special interests.
The Baltimore Sun explains how it would work in Montgomery County:
Beginning in 2015, candidates for county executive or council would qualify to have their political campaigns publicly funded if they attracted a sufficient number of small contributions of $5 to $150. In the case of a council race, for instance, it would be 125 donations adding up to at least $10,000. After that, campaigns would be largely publicly financed on a matching basis….The system would be voluntary, but participants would not be able to accept donations larger than $150 or from political action committees or labor organizations.
Public financing has worked in other cities across the country. Take New York City as an example. A 2012 Brennan Center analysis of the effects of the city’s public finance model found that the matching system helped “bring participants into the political process who traditionally are less likely to be active.” The study suggested that the model encouraged candidates to reach out to a more diverse group of people to support their campaigns, rather than centering all of their efforts on the wealthiest donors.
And when candidates start getting into office because of the support of their constituents, rather than because a few wealthy special interests have bankrolled their campaigns, the policy agenda can shift from one designed to keep powerful interests happy to one designed to serve the common good.
Legislators across the country should take note of what’s happening in Montgomery County. Polling consistently shows that the overwhelming majority of voters want to see elected officials work to lessen big money’s impact on our elections. In other words, Americans understand the problem but are hungry for solutions. Along with long-term fixes like pushing to amend the Constitution to overturn decisions like Citizens United, small donor public financing can be a way to put everyday Americans’ voices at the center of our political process, where they belong.