House Democratic Challengers Demand Campaign-Finance Reforms

Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Representative John Sarbanes, chair of the Democracy Reform Task Force, speaks outside the Capitol during Monday afternoon's A Better Deal for Our Democracy press conference hosted by House and Senate Democrats, May 21, 2018. 

One month before November’s election, the 2018 congressional races are on pace to be the most expensive midterm contests ever. Hundreds of millions of dollars in big money contributions are pouring into super PACs and dark-money nonprofit groups this year. 

Two years ago, just 100 Americans gave $1 billion to super PACs to influence the 2016 national elections—an average of $10 million per donor. This was no doubt the largest amount of money ever given by the smallest number of the wealthiest Americans to influence U.S elections and government decisions.  

The impact of influence-seeking money provided by wealthy donors can be seen in the grossly disproportionate benefits provided to the wealthy by the tax bill passed by Congress in 2017. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, found “the largest cuts as a share of income [are] going to taxpayers in the 95th to 99th percentiles of the income distribution.” The Center also found that “83 percent of the total benefit” in 2027 will go to the top 1 percent of the income distribution, whilemore than half of all Americans—53 percent—would pay more in taxes.

A recent poll found that “more than half of Americans say most members of Congress are corrupt, beholden to special interests, and out of touch with their constituents.”   It’s no wonder that another recent poll found corruption in Washington is the “most important” topic for 2018 candidates to discuss.   

Last week, a large group of Democratic House challengers forcefully responded.

In an unprecedented letter sent to all House members, 107 House Democratic challengers called for sweeping reforms to be the first item of business taken up in the new Congress next January. The House challengers wrote, “We hear day in and day out that special interests are drowning out the voices of everyday citizens—to the point where many Americans no longer believe their votes even count.” 

Among the reforms the challengers called for in their letter were “limiting the influence of big donors on campaigns, quashing the political influence, real or perceived, special interests currently have in our government and providing incentives for donors to make small contributions to federal candidates.”

The deep public concerns about a rigged system in Washington are setting the stage for achieving fundamental reforms in the next few years. These opportunities do not come along very often.

The Watergate scandals in the early 1970s led to the passage of the Watergate reforms in 1974. These landmark reforms included a public financing system for presidential elections that served the country well for more than two decades, candidate and party contribution limits and campaign finance disclosure laws. 

The “soft money” scandals in the 1990s led to passage in 2002 of the McCain-Feingold ban on unlimited individual and corporate contributions to political parties—a ban in existence today, notwithstanding a hostile Supreme Court. 

The Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals in the 2000s led to the passage in 2007 of comprehensive lobbying and ethics reforms in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.

In 2016, candidate Donald Trump recognized the widespread citizen concerns about the ways of Washington. As president, however, he’s proceeded to scam the American people.  Trump repeatedly pledged during his campaign to “drain the swamp” in Washington, but once elected he created an Administration that has become a far more pestiferous “swamp” than had existed before.  

The latest crisis for our political system was triggered in 2010 when five Supreme Court Justices decided they would write their own campaign-finance laws.

The Citizens United decision issued on January 21, 2010, set the stage for a new system of “independent” campaign spending that returned to our elections the most corrupting money in American politics: unlimited contributions and secret money. 

Since that decision, huge contributions have gone to super PACs, and huge, secret contributions have gone to nonprofit groups, all to be spent “independently” to influence federal elections. Senior Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner, a highly influential conservative constitutional scholar, explained the destructive impact of the Citizens United decision: "Our political system is pervasively corrupt due to our Supreme Court taking away campaign-contribution restrictions on the basis of the First Amendment."

As long as Citizens United and implementing court decisions are the law of the land, unlimited contributions cannot be stopped from pouring into our elections through super PACs supporting multiple candidates and nonprofit groups. But what can be done is to provide candidates with an alternative way to finance their races so they are not dependent on big money. 

A new system that uses public funds to provide multiple matching funds for small contributions would free candidates from being indebted to influence-buying funders. The combination of such a new financing system with technological breakthroughs in raising small contributions online would revolutionize the way our campaigns are financed.   

Without this kind of alternative system to finance presidential and congressional candidates, a rigged and corrupt system in Washington will only grow worse.

The results of the 2018 midterm elections will determine what happens next in Congress and where the battle to challenge corruption in Washington goes in 2019. If Democrats win control of the House, Democratic leaders are publicly committed to move immediately to pass sweeping democracy reforms, including a new public matching funds system for federal candidates. 

In addition to campaign-finance reforms, the elements of the democracy reforms to be considered in a single package include voting rights, nonpartisan redistricting commissions, and executive branch and congressional ethics reforms. The reforms are contained in A Better Deal for Our Democracy, developed by a House Democratic task force led by Representative John Sarbanes.  

If passed by the House early next year, the democracy reform package will move to the Senate where a tough battle will ensue over the next few years to enact the legislation into law. 

The coming fight for fundamental reforms is a battle to restore the integrity and health of our democracy. It must be won.

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