By Congressmen Jared Huffman, Alan Lowenthal, and Beto O'Rourke
March 28, 2014
The Huffington Post
As freshmen members of the U.S. House of Representatives, we know the corrosive effect the out-of-control campaign finance system is having on our democracy. Every election brings new examples of special interests drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens -- and of candidates who are forced to fight back against outrageous attack ads from shadowy groups with Orwellian names. This system isn't worthy of America.
The Citizens United decision took an already-challenging campaign finance environment and made it far worse. With the Supreme Court's blessing, "super PACs" with secret corporate donors, masquerading as "nonprofit" groups, are running rampant and spending staggering amounts of money each federal election cycle. They are virtually unchecked by the toothless Federal Elections Commission.
The 2012 election shattered all campaign spending records: more than $7 billion spent on attack ads, robocalls, polls, and consultants. And because of our broken campaign finance laws, much of that money came from a small number of corporations and wealthy individuals; just 32 of the richest people in the country contributed as much money to super PACs as 3.7 million people donated to the two presidential campaigns combined. One man, Sheldon Adelson, reported spending at least $98 million, but because of deficiencies in reporting we'll never know how much he really spent. It's no wonder that everyday Americans feel that their vote is counting less and less every year.
That's why one of the very first things we did after being sworn in was start working to reform this broken system and revitalize American democracy. We wanted to serve in Congress to do good things for the American people, not to watch the effectiveness and integrity of Congress be further eroded.
We believe there are several reforms needed to fight back against the scourge of unlimited and secretive campaign spending, bring transparency and accountability to the system, and, more importantly, support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. But one of the most effective things we can do to blunt the out-sized influence of corporations and mega-donors is to amplify the voices of ordinary citizens so they are not drowned out.
That's why we enthusiastically joined with Rep. John Sarbanes as original co-sponsors of the Government by the People Act, a promising new idea for empowering regular citizens and revitalizing our democracy. The heart of the Act is a $25 refundable My Voice Tax Credit to enable every citizen to make at least a $25 contribution to congressional campaigns. Further, the Act multiples the impact of these and other small contributions by providing a powerful incentive for candidates: any candidate who forgoes PAC money and only accepts donations under $1,000 qualifies for a 6-to-1 match from a newly-established Freedom from Influence Fund.
With this reform, regular people are empowered to participate in the process, and candidates who prefer to rely on smaller contributions can do so and still be competitive, even if their opponents are backed by mega-donors and special interests.
Without reform, we will see a continued skewing of the system in favor of big money. In 2012, individual small-dollar donors to congressional campaigns were outspent by outside groups by an obscene 3-to-1 margin. The Government by the People Act helps level this unfair and undemocratic advantage. It gives every citizen some skin in the game, and extra motivation to get informed and to vote. And it lets candidates for Congress spend more time talking to their neighbors instead of dialing for PAC dollars and hearing only from the wealthiest donors.
Amplifying the voices of ordinary Americans over the din of a small number of wealthy donors will be a tough fight, but it's a fight we have to take on. Until we fix the campaign finance system, our broader aspirations for policy reforms -- including action on immigration reform, tax reform, climate change, gun violence, and any number of other issues that ordinary Americans care about -- will face powerful political headwinds.