Here’s how to put everyday citizens in charge of financing campaigns

May 19

David Barrows of Washington waves a flag with corporate logos and fake money during a rally against money in politics outside the Supreme Court in October. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In a post last week, Seth Masket argued that “‘fixing’ campaign finance is only making it worse.”  This is a guest post in response by John Sarbanes, who represents Maryland’s 3rd District in the House and is the author of the Government by the People Act.

In a bad sequel to the Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court recently ruled in McCutcheon v. FEC that the wealthy can continue to throw even more money at Congress to get what they want. And, according to alarming new research, it’s working.

Analyzing the legislative outcomes in Congress over the past 20 years, Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton and Professor Benjamin Page of Northwestern found that the views of the wealthy dominate public policy outcomes, while the views of average Americans go unheard. In surely one of the most dispiriting conclusions ever written, the authors assert that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

It’s no wonder that Americans feel powerless and disconnected from their government. A deep cynicism is taking hold of the country, with more and more Americans convinced that big money calls the shots in Washington and that there is nothing that can be done about it. We must resist that conclusion and fight back on behalf of everyday citizens. Reform is possible, and it is imperative.

Previous reforms have often focused on limiting the influence of those who have the most — wealthy donors and big-money special interests. In McCutcheon, Citizens United and a host of lesser-known but extremely consequential decisions, the Supreme Court has systematically hollowed out the core of many of these reforms. At the same time, big money has continued to find clever ways around the limits that remain.

Given this reality, it is time we focus on a new kind of reform that empowers everyday Americans and gives candidates incentive to build their campaign on a foundation of thousands of citizen donors. Most Americans are eager to be a part of the solution.

That’s why we introduced the Government by the People Act: to make the voices of everyday Americans as powerful as the voices of the big-money campaign donors. The bill would encourage more Americans to participate in the funding of campaigns through a $25 “My Voice” Tax Credit. A “Freedom From Influence” Matching Fund would boost the value of those small donations, giving candidates an incentive to break their dependence on big donors and instead reach out to the broad public. Finally, the Government by the People Act will provide candidates with a means to fight back against super PACs and other dark money interests so that the voice of the people is not drowned out in the homestretch of a campaign.

The Government by the People Act is a common-sense proposal to replace Congress’s dependence on big money with a new model of funding campaigns that puts everyday citizens back in charge. It encourages candidates to move away from big-money donors and walk towards the light — toward the millions of Americans who are demanding to be heard. It holds the promise that the priorities and concerns of the people will once again find expression in the public policy that comes out of Washington. That heartfelt aspiration is one shared alike by Democrats, Republicans and independents.  It’s time to return to a government of, by and for the people.

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