So far, the “The Missing Debate” has covered a wide range of policy imperatives, from the future of the Federal Reserve to housing policy to K-12 education. While we’ve discussed a wide range of potential solutions, we’re under no illusion that they are likely to make headway in Washington’s current political climate.
When this vicious electoral season comes to a close, we’re likely to be left with a further divided government and an increasingly polarized electorate. Perhaps the biggest question regarding any policy agenda is whether there is any hope for lawmakers to break through the dysfunction that has paralyzed Congress over the past few years.
For that reason, the final question of the series focuses on reforms that could improve relations between the two parties and make lawmakers more willing to cooperate and pass needed legislation. What is the one most important reform the next administration and Congress should champion to improve the political atmosphere in Washington?
Ellen L. Weintraub is a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission.
What sentiment unites supporters of candidates as diverse as Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders? Disgust with the way we fund our elections. One recent poll found that 85 percent of Americans believe the system needs either fundamental changes or a complete rebuild.
How bad is it now? “60 Minutes” reported earlier this year that each day of their terms, members of Congress are expected to spend four hours on the phone raising $18,000 a day from big donors across the country. This is time not spent legislating. Not learning about the issues. Not getting to know their colleagues better. And since “call time” is horrible, soul-crushing work, it can’t be improving their moods.
Shedding this telemarketing burden will go a long way toward giving members of Congress the capacity to build more constructive relationships with each other, with their constituents and with the executive branch. And what single reform can do all this? Bringing a voluntary system of public campaign financing, which has been successful at the state and local levels, to congressional races.
Most public campaign financing programs involve a match of contributions raised by candidates, with a lid on the size of contributions that are allowed. They require candidates to collect a substantial number of small-dollar contributions to qualify. And typically, contributions must come from registered voters in the candidate’s jurisdiction. Not corporations, not unions, not PACs. People! Voters! Constituents!
As it is now, the concerns of the country’s wealthiest people absorb the time and attention of office-holders. But when candidates need small and local contributions, they have a powerful incentive to devote time and attention to the needs of typical constituents, those who don’t live in the world of big political money. These citizens deserve and are demanding a government that is responsive and accountable to them.
And when members of Congress descend upon the Capitol, ears burning with their constituents’ most urgent concerns, they will find that what they’ve heard wasn’t that different from Florida to Idaho to Maine to Arizona to Kansas: What will best ensure my family’s future? How can we keep the United States strong and the world peaceful? And how will we pay for everything? From common concerns, common solutions can be pursued.
Presidents and Congress usually shy away from investing political capital in campaign finance reform. The one thread tying every federal elected official together is that they worked the existing system to win office and any large-scale reform threatens them. But if no one is willing to commit to reform, the system won’t get any better. Our members of Congress will continue their wretched telemarketing lives, and the American people will continue to be fundamentally dissatisfied with and shortchanged by how our democracy works.
There are many other much-needed reforms that could cast light on dark money, address the outsize role of unaccountable outside spending groups, strengthen parties, protect voters from coercion, shield our system from foreign influence and boost voter turnout. But few reforms could match the immediate impact of public campaign financing on Washington’s political climate.
More than a hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt won office in a system he recognized as corrupt. To the dismay of his backers, he bucked that system and championed some of our first campaign-finance reforms. Washington needs that sort of courage today more than ever.