Daschle's Situation, and the Small-Dollar Solution

When history is written, will Sen. Tom Daschle's withdrawn nomination for President Obama's Cabinet represent a tax issue? No.

Will it represent an issue of "vetting" that can be solved with a few questions on a questionnaire? No.

Will it represent what someday will be seen as a primitive era in our nation's history where big-money special interests were too influential for too long and trapped too many good people in a bad system? Absolutely.

I know Senator Daschle and some of the people involved. They are honest, kind, and passionate people - leaders devoted to change and the betterment of our country. That's why Daschle was one of the first supporters of President Obama's bottom-up campaign - and why he was a fierce advocate for Obama's universal healthcare plan.

But like many other good and decent people, Daschle got caught in a bad system - a system that is so corrupted by money it hardly matters whether the money is from good people with good intentions or bad people with bad intentions. The problem is the money itself.

Let's face it – there is a reason why big corporations are willing to pay good people millions to influence government. They know it will be worth their while, financially. Right now, millions in campaign contributions coupled with millions spent on lobbying can result in billions worth of payback for special interests. It's all legal. And being part of that system is irresistible to many who retire from Congress after years of public service.

But there are some big losers in that equation: The public. The American people have lost faith in a system dominated by money. We don't have lobbyists looking out for the public good. And when non-profit groups do send liaisons to congressional offices, they don't have the same clout as a lobbyist who can put together a $50,000 fundraiser later that evening.

As the $700 billion Wall Street bailout got debated before the 2008 election, constituents had plenty to say - placing thousands of calls and writing thousands of letters to congressional offices. The problem was that Congress wasn't listening. Members of Congress (not "men") were busy calling the same special interests that got our economy into this mess, listening to their requests and begging them for $2,300 checks.

The result was a bailout with no strings attached--taxpayer money that could be legally spent on bonuses, office redecorations, and airplanes. And the same special interests who cut the campaign checks back then are lobbying Congress now, begging for more handouts. Once again, the ones with disproportionate influence in this debate are the public.

As Eugene Robinson correctly pointed out on the Washington Post's website, "Daschle is a good guy, but he's a creature of the system." But it's a fluke is that this creature of the system got in any hot water at all. If Daschle had declared his driver correctly on his taxes, many in Washington, D.C. who have turned a blind eye toward this broken system for years never would have raised an eyebrow.

But guess what? There's a group of people who have seen this problem growing for years and now have the leverage in our political system to do something about it: small-dollar donors.

The power of small-dollar donors was proven in the 2008 election like never before, and the incentives are beginning to realign in a way that promotes politicians catering to the little guy, not the big guy.

But there's one snag. If politicians know that they can depend on small-dollar donors giving online while asking nothing concrete in return, and politicians can still take special interest cash that depends on results, the incentives remain wrong. Politicians will take the little guy's money while still being disproportionately influenced by special interests.

That's why the reform group I started with Lawrence Lessig, called Change Congress, launched a "donor strike" last month. In just a few weeks, 6,300 people who gave a combined $750,000 last election cycle promised not to give a penny more to federal candidates who don't support the bipartisan Durbin-Specter bill which would fundamentally reform the system.

Under this legislation, as it will be re-introduced soon, congressional candidates who raise a threshold number of small-dollar donations would qualify for a chunk of funding--likely several hundred thousand dollars. If they accept this funding, they can't raise big-dollar donations or accept lobbyist money. But they can raise small-dollar contributions up to a certain amount (such as $100), which would be matched several times over by a central fund.

This system has worked on the state level, creating the incentive for politicians to run people-powered campaigns that cater to the little guy. A bipartisan Lake-Tarrance poll showed the public supports this proposal 69% to 13%.

The only thing previously missing was a vehicle for the public to rally around such a proposal. The Change Congress donor strike is that vehicle. Every week, thousands of new people join the strike and give politicians a choice: you can have our money, the people's money, or special-interest money, but you can no longer have both.

I'm sure, now more than ever, Senator Daschle understands the system in which we operate in is broken. And, like Change Congress, I have little doubt the Senator wants fundamental reform too.

So, we invite him—and you—to join our donor strike at Change-Congress.org. (And if you want to help keep this grassroots reform campaign going, you can chip in a small-dollar contribution here.)