Money in politics has become a powerful and insidious threat to our democracy. But now is the opportune time for both voters and legislators to fight back with campaign finance reform. Just last week, in a speech that decried secret donors, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD 5th District) said, “Partisan paralysis in Congress is poisoning the other branches of government and quashing the voice of everyday Americans.” In other words, Congress’ inability to address campaign finance makes it clear that in politics, money trumps public opinion. An idea with zero public support and an idea with 100% public support have one thing in common: a 30% likelihood of becoming law.
In theory, the relationship between politician and voter is simple: we hire our elected officials by voting, pay their salaries with our tax dollars, and deserve representation in return. But because the average victorious House campaign costs a whopping $1.5 million, up 50% since 2008, members of Congress spend at least half their time fundraising and wooing big donors—time that should be spent working for their constituents. Even more disturbing, 69% of Super PAC funds come from the top 1% of donors, dark money grew from 3% of total money raised in 2004 to 44% in 2012, and so far, in the 2016 cycle, spending has already been ten times 2012 levels. In short, democracy in America has been purchased by a wealthy few.
Campaign finance reform has been a hot-button issue for a while, so any progress can feel like an uphill climb, with Citizens United (2010 SCOUTS decision that lifted a previous ban on corporate and union independent expenditures), being the largest boulder blocking the way. But now, it is a climb worth attempting, with both presidential nominees speaking out:
Donald Trump and his supporters take great pride in his claim that he is self-funding his campaign, with Trump himself criticizing former opponents who sought donations from the Koch Brothers as “puppets.” Trump has said “I think PACs are a horrible thing” and “I love the idea of campaign finance reform.”
Hillary Clinton, at the rally in New Hampshire where Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed her, promised to make campaign finance reform a key part of her presidency if elected, saying, “It is past time to end the stranglehold of wealthy special interests in Washington and get back to government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” On Friday, Clinton took this a step further, saying she would call for a constitutional amendment to “overturn Citizens United” within her first 30 days as president.
It would be typical to blame politicians, but “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” At IssueVoter, a nonpartisan platform to give all Americans an equal voice, we believe the time couldn’t be better to change the game. We urge voters and elected officials, regardless of party affiliation, to take the following steps towards taking money out of politics:
Voters should urge their congressperson to pass campaign finance reform laws, such as the Government By the People Act (H.R. 20), by sending their opinion directly. The proposed law would provide regular Americans, and the candidates they support, with the tools they need to compete with big-money politics. Also, MAYDAY.US, a national grassroots campaign to fight corruption, is collecting signatures for a petition that demands an “equal voice for all Americans, at this crucial moment, at every level of government.” It will be delivered in person to both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions; it’s timely and emphasizes issues, not partisanship. Finally, voters must put their vote where their mouth is and support candidates who champion campaign finance reform. Remember, no matter how much money a candidate raises, they don’t get re-elected if voters don’t vote for them.
In parallel, Congress should fulfill their responsibility as “we the people’s” voice in D.C. by holding town halls in their districts. While on recess until Labor Day, there is no excuse not to. Furthermore, 18 Senators (and even more House Members) are not at the GOP Convention due to differences with Donald Trump, and will have even more time off.
- Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE), instead of watching “dumpster fires across the state”, why not stoke the flames of democracy by hosting a lively community discussion?
- And Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), instead of “mowing your lawn”, why not ask how your constituents feel about mowing something greener—like money in politics?
When back in Washington, Congress must introduce and then actually pass legislation reflecting voters’ needs. Fix the fact that only 16% of U.S. citizens approve of Congress, and end the relationship between the strength of one’s voice and the size of one’s wallet.
For campaign finance reform to become a reality, we, voters and representatives united, must bring action to our roles as authors of American democracy. If voters aren’t speaking up, Congress can’t hear them, but if Congress isn’t listening, it won’t matter. Act now, and together, let’s write a new chapter in which the voices of all constituents, not just those of affluence, equal influence.
Collaborated in writing: Lou Chen, a Princeton University student from San Bernardino
IssueVoter is a non-partisan website that helps busy people make their voice heard in Washington ― with just one click. IssueVoter tracks how often elected officials represent their constituents throughout the year, helping voters make an informed decision at election time.