Taking Back Democracy
Five years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United ruling, big-money campaign donors and wealthy special interests have amassed unprecedented political power — and their corrosive influence on our government is growing.
Every election brings new examples of special interests drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens. The 2014 election was no exception: With nearly $4 billion spent, it was the most expensive midterm election in American history. Shadowy Super PACs and dark money groups spent more money than ever before, relying on a handful of mega donors to fill their coffers.
As a result, in only the first few months of the new, Republican-controlled Congress, we’ve seen a litany of bills that do favors for the wealthy and well-connected, but a dearth of legislation that would truly help hard-working families.
No wonder why voters are cynical about the state of American democracy. What goes on in Washington confirms their worst suspicions: that special interests are calling the shots and blocking progress on important issues, like making the economy work for everyday Americans, creating good jobs, protecting consumers and safeguarding the environment.
Despite this grim reality, there is reason for hope. Most people still run for public office for the right reason: a sincere desire to help others and to make a positive difference in their communities. And there are many dedicated, principled leaders in Congress who are frustrated by the outsized role of money in politics and who long to restore Congress’ credibility with the public. Moreover, grassroots support is growing among everyday Americans who want to take back our democracy.
The key to tapping into all of these sentiments is to ensure that the voices of ordinary citizens are not drowned out by the undue influence of corporations and mega-donors. However, Supreme Court decisions striking down campaign spending limits have made this difficult.
While we support a constitutional amendment to restore the authority of Congress, state and local governments to regulate campaign spending, it’s a long-term fight. But there is another way dilute big money’s influence: we can set up a small-donor fundraising system to compete with today’s big-money politics.
That’s the idea behind H.R. 20, the Government By the People Act. Under this proposal, Americans would receive a “My Voice” Tax Credit for small-donor political contributions, giving them the means to participate in funding campaigns. For candidates that agree to voluntary contribution limits, H.R. 20 would boost small donations with a “Freedom From Influence” Matching Fund, giving everyday citizens a voice that competes with wealthy donors.
This kind of reform would help everyday Americans reclaim our democracy. But entrenched big money interests will fight us every step of the way. We’ll need broad, grassroots support to win this fight — the kind of energized citizen engagement we experienced last week when we joined CALPIRG at UC Berkeley for a roundtable discussion about the Government By the People Act.
When everyday Americans in California and across the country come together, they carry enormous political power. Enough power, we believe, to reform our broken campaign finance system and return to a government of, by and for the people.
Congressman Mark DeSaulnier serves California’s Eleventh Congressional District, Congressman Jared Huffman serves California’s Second Congressional District, Congressman Jerry McNerney serves California’s Ninth Congressional District and Congressman John Sarbanes serves Maryland’s Third Congressional District.