Let me start by admitting that I didn’t vote for you. In fact, let me save your research folks some time; my social media is filled with anti-Trump rhetoric, links, comments, etc. But I’m a realist, and on January 20, 2017 you will take the mantel of the President of the United States and will wield enormous power. Your presidency is unprecedented in so many ways. I feel like I have reason to hope; you committed to drain the swamp, the swamp is supported by the influence of money in politics. I am writing today to offer my thoughts and advice on how you can drain the swamp while also addressing another issue you identified during the campaign — reforming campaign finance.
I’ve been working in the area of campaign finance compliance for 16 years at both the state and federal levels. I have worked for progressive causes and candidates and I make no apologies for that. But it is also true that I am no major player ― I’m not the mastermind behind any great progressive strategies. I don’t lead any partisan organizations fighting against the right — yes, I do support them — but I don’t lead them. I’m just a guy that has strong opinions on campaign finance reform — and those opinions are the same as yours!
In an article for The Hill dated January 17, 2016, you were quoted (in part) as saying in regard to the need for campaign finance reform that “Well, I think you need it, because I think PACs are a horrible thing.” As you may remember, you were specifically talking about Super PACs and the quote was from your (then) recent appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union”. I won’t go point for point through the interview, you were there after all, but the one line that stood out for me most was this:
“Somebody gives them money, not anything wrong, just psychologically when they [the contributor] go to that person [the candidate], they’re going to do it,” he added. “They owe them. And by the way, they may therefore vote negatively toward the country.” - Donald Trump
I agree! I have said for years that the influence of money is much more subtle than folks want to believe. It is comparatively simple to legislate against bribery or quid pro quo transactions. But not so simple to talk about, or legislate, the subtle effects money has on the decision-making process. Right?
However in a more recent article in the National Journal titled Campaign Finance Reform Advocates Face Grim Future, Karyn Bruggeman (@hotlinekaryn) posits that your administration will be bad for campaign finance reform. In support of her hypothesis, she includes interviews with leaders of left-leaning organizations such as End Citizens United PAC and People for the American Way. Their opinions that you will stymie campaign finance reform and thus expand the role of money in electoral politics are based partially on your cabinet picks and partially on a reference you made at the Republican convention to the repeal of the Johnson Amendment. Cabinet picks aside, repealing the Johnson Amendment doesn’t serve our shared goal. I understand why, on the campaign trail, advocating for this repeal would make sense. It’s a great talking point to give a voice to the religious folks in our society. I get it. But for our purposes, repeal of the Johnson Amendment allows even more corporate money (albeit non-profit corporations) to be added to the millions already being poured into the swamp. How does it make sense to allow yet another group to buy “influence” in the way we know that money in politics buys influence? I’m not one of those liberals that thinks “the church” is bad, and I’m not saying that the many non-profit institutions wouldn’t operate in a way that they felt supported the best interests of our country but they would do that in the same way that any corporation would and that is to say, in their own self interest. As you noted so wisely, they will sometimes urge their representatives to vote “negatively toward the country” because it will serve the needs of their organization. So, I’m going to assume we’re on the same page with this one and just move on.
Here’s my proposal. I’ll ask for a bit of latitude here as you consider these ideas. I, like you, have never written policy but again, I have worked within this system for 16 years and have made some observations. If you do decide to move forward with these proposals — which I would imagine would mean authoring legislation and getting it passed through congress (which should be a snap given the current majorities your party holds in both houses) — then we should probably involve some of those liberal organizations I mentioned but first things first. Here are my suggestions:
Citizens United: The decision in Citizens United vs. The Federal Elections Commission needs to be reversed. This decision ascribed the rights of an individual to a corporation. As you and I both know, corporations aren’t people. Their only motivation is to make a profit for their shareholders but our government should be driven by the greatest good for the largest number. Allowing corporations, with their deep pockets, to have such an out sized influence on the makeup of the government through Super PACs and “dark money” is the opposite of what we need.
Dark Money: So called “dark money” is money spent by non-profit, social welfare groups organized under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)4. These groups were first formed to allow non-profits the ability to influence legislation and lobby the electorate in order to further their specific agenda that was at least ostensibly meant to further social welfare. Their donors are secret, although they are reported to the IRS. Under current law, they can also spend up to 49% of their operating budget on promoting, attacking, supporting or opposing candidates. This is an easy fix, just change the law so that if they want to do electoral work (and keep their non-profit status) they need to create a political action committee, register with the Federal Elections Commission and follow the same rules as everyone else including reporting their donors publicly.
Public Financing: Did you know that we currently have $300MM available for public financing of presidential candidates? No one knows what to do with the money because with Super PACs and Dark Money available, and the complex rules around accessing this money, no candidate opts into the system to receive public financing. Properly administered, public financing could level the playing field so that capable women and men of good conscience have the opportunity to run for office and not be so completely outspent that they’re unable to compete. It’s a handout but one the candidates have to earn by proving viability. There are successful public financing programs in Los Angeles and San Francisco and in other countries as well so there is a lot of precedence on which to base our policy.
I hope you will consider these proposals. Will they take the entire corrupting influence of money out of politics? Not by themselves but they will go a long way to making sure that when our legislators vote they are less beholden to the Super PAC money and special interests and more focused on their country and their constituents. Mr. Trump, you more than any President in modern times have the ability to do this. As you pointed out many times, you are independently mega-wealthy, you don’t need these folks to help you get elected and you don’t need them to make you rich. I urge you to take this unique moment to once again prove your naysayers wrong. If you reform campaign finance the swamp drains itself and there you are with two campaign promises kept and us liberals befuddled again, unable to put you in a box - WIN!