WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama may have a strong message for the middle class and voters in his State of the Union address, but it won't matter unless he and Congress first do something about the cash-flooded election system, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) argued Tuesday.
"There’s a declining number of people who even watch the State of the Union every year. You just had an election where you had the lowest turnout since 1942 in a national election," Sarbanes told HuffPost shortly before the president's annual speech.
"I think people are deeply disaffected with politics," he said. "They really think that Washington is an insiders’ game and that money and special interests really call the shots."
Obama and Democrats have been beating the drum lately on middle class pocketbook issues, with Obama recently proposing agenda items such as boosting the child tax credit and publicly funding community college.
Sarbanes said those are great issues for voters, but no one even will pay attention unless people believe their votes count.
"If they are not even listening to you on the front end of that discussion, it doesn’t matter," Sarbanes said, adding that he believes the only way to make people believe that is by fixing the campaign finance system, and giving regular citizens more clout.
Five years after the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Citizens United case that billionaires could spend as much money as they want on campaigns, Sarbanes wants to create a public finance system in which people get a small tax credit for political donations, which would then be matched six times over with public money.
"That means a $50 donor is now worth $350 to the candidate," Sarbanes said, arguing that a politician would then have incentives to visit people in living rooms, rather than catering to super PACs and billionaires. "It’s worth my going there instead of going to K Street or getting on the phone with a bunch of high-dollar donors."
"The problem is there’s no other place to raise the money you need to run a competitive campaign for Congress or the Senate," he added. "You have to go to the deep-pocket donors. You have to go to the PACs. ... If there was another place to go, you would see a lot of members of Congress choose that option every time."
Sarbanes agreed it will be difficult to create a new public finance system, and that it probably wouldn't happen in a Republican-controlled Congress. But he argued it should be at the top of the list on Obama's agenda if the president wants to carry out any of his plans to help the middle class.
"I think the president could begin to articulate that kind of a message, and say to people, 'The reason you should believe us when we say we’re going to raise the minimum wage, and we’re going to do something about climate change, and we’re going to do something to empower the middle class ... is we’re going to reform the process so that your voice instead of the voice of special interests is the one that counts here in Washington,'" Sarbanes said.
"If you don’t have that last piece of the message, they say, 'That’s great… but you’ll never get it done because special interests run the show.' We have to change that narrative."
Sarbanes said he would pay for his matching fund by closing tax loopholes on some of the industries that employ the lobbyists who hold such sway in Washington.