“The need for collecting large campaign funds would vanish if Congress provided an appropriation for the proper and legitimate expenses of each of the great national parties,” President Theodore Roosevelt — that scurrilous Republican radical — told Congress in 1907. TR’s preference for democracy over plutocracy (he also recommended banning corporations from donating to presidential campaigns) clearly doesn’t carry much weight among the five Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court, but there are plenty of other Americans who’d prefer a Congress less dependent on the kindness of the very rich.
If you’re one of these anti-plutocrats, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) has a bill for you. House Resolution 20 stands no chance of passing or even coming up for a vote in the current Congress, of course, but it is nonetheless the most thoughtful proposal in years to begin to diminish the hold that big money exerts over American lawmaking.
The bill — also known as the Government by the People Act — would provide House candidates with a way to raise funds without auctioning off themselves to Wall Street and K Street. If candidates chose to limit contributions to their campaigns to no more than $1,000, every contribution they received of $150 or less from residents of their state would trigger a contribution of public funds at a 6-to-1 ratio: A $100 donation would yield $600 in public funds; a $150 donation, $900. To qualify for matching funds, candidates would also have to reject contributions from political action committees, unless those PACS also raised their money in contributions of $150 or less. Sarbanes points out that PACs that raise their funds from hundreds or thousands of small donors — as many union and tea party PACs do — could thus still contribute to participating candidates.
Moreover, to encourage people of modest means to make contributions, donors could get a 50 percent tax refund for the first $50 of donations to any candidate — so that a $50 contribution would bring a $25 tax refund.
The Supreme Court, in its solicitude for the free-speech interests of the rich, has struck down state laws that enabled candidates to claim more public funds if their opponents’ spending exceeded a certain threshold. But state and local statutes that simply provide public matching funds with no provisions for calibrating those amounts to other candidates’ spending have remained intact. So Sarbanes’s bill steers clear of the kind of concerns that the court has ruled off-limits.
“This bill,” says Sarbanes, “addresses the need to build a movement to take government back from big money. There is a range of proposals to do that: my bill, bills requiring full disclosure of donations, movements by shareholders to have a say over corporate donations. These all come from the same place — a deep conviction that the American people have been left behind.”
Sarbanes’s bill has 145 co-sponsors, of whom one — North Carolina maverick Rep. Walter Jones — is a Republican. It is also backed by a coalition considerably wider than the traditional good-government groups whose lineage runs straight back to Teddy Roosevelt. Unions, environmental and civil rights groups, convinced that the reign of money poses a fundamental threat to all progressive initiatives, support the bill as well.
Even if Sarbanes’s bill were somehow to become law, it wouldn’t remove the ability of big money to sway close elections. The really big spending in today’s elections comes not from the candidates’ own campaigns but rather the campaigns that supportive groups and individuals run on their behalf. That said, thanks to the geographic sorting of voters by ideology and to the miracle of gerrymandering, most House candidates run in safe districts that the big-dollar independent campaigns routinely ignore. Financing their campaigns through small donations would be not just an ethically preferable option for them but an electorally viable one as well. Besides, Sarbanes adds, with the low-dollar match, a candidate “can spend time not on K Street but with his or her constituents. It’s a way to get volunteers and hear the issues your constituents are really concerned about.”
Over the past decade, the move toward creating the public matching funds option for candidates has slowed in states, but it accelerated in cities: Los Angeles and New York City enacted statues that multiply small-dollar contributions, while California and New York state have not. But with the increasing dominance that mega-money holds over our politics, as exemplified by the Koch brothers’ pledge to spend nearly $1 billion of their own and fellow billionaires’ funds ahead of the next presidential election, that may be beginning to change.
“Can 300 million Americans overpower two brothers named Koch?” Sarbanes asks. On the answer hinges the future of American democracy.
Read more on this topic: