On the eve of the 2016 elections, voters across the board are both more fed up than ever with the political system, and more convinced that nothing will ever change. One exception is Nick Penniman, the head of Issue One, a Washington reform group with a quixotic mission: to build bipartisan common ground on the polarizing issue of campaign financing.
Penniman is convinced that it’s possible to change American politics for the better, and he’s brought together more than 100 former members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to prove it. The author of a forthcoming book titled Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It, Penniman is on a mission to find an ever-elusive bipartisan common ground on campaign-finance reform, and in doing so change American politics for the better.
We sat down with Penniman for a Q&A on why the system is broken and how to fix it. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Issue One’s latest effort, the Reformers’ Caucus, has rallied more than 100 former Members of Congress to push for bipartisan campaign-finance reform. How can these former members influence today’s Congress?
We feel like part of what we need to do is to basically put bait in the water—people who resonate with current members, who current members can trust and have faith in—to begin to convince them to come on board with this cause.
If this cause remains a progressive-only cause, I think we’re pretty much cooked in Washington because there’s more than a 30-vote margin in the House, six votes in the Senate.
The reason we emphasize bipartisanship is because we’re trying to build the kind of coalition that will be able to actually legislate on this issue.
Given consistent polling that shows outrage over the influence of money in politics across the political spectrum, why has it been so hard to achieve a bipartisan consensus on reform in Congress?
Outside the Beltway, in the heartland of America, there seems to be a nearly unanimous consensus that this is a real big problem, and that the game is rigged, and the public is desperate about it. Inside the Beltway, the common wisdom of the American people disintegrates. I think that that is the result of missteps by a lot of people who believed in reform because they allowed this cause to be sidelined as a liberals-only issue. Some causes will always be seen as a Democratic or liberal issue—choice, abortion—I don’t see that ever being seen as a non-liberal issue.
But it’s somewhat tragic that the maintenance of a responsive and effective democratic republic has come to be seen as something that liberals do. So the fact that we’ve allowed it to be sidelined accordingly is a strategic error.
What do you think has happened since the McCain-Feingold reform was passed in 2002 through bipartisan compromise?
If you look at all of the groups that work on this issue, they pretty strongly identify as liberal or Democratic. So when you have only liberal organizations mobilizing on behalf of this cause, then inevitably you’re not going to be able to build or maintain a bipartisan coalition.
Of the conservative groups that are out there, they took positions that were too far out for any Democrats to embrace—pretty much blowing all the caps on money in politics and just creating transparency. So when conservative groups have stood up on behalf of the cause, there’s been such a vast chasm between them and the liberal groups that there doesn’t seem to be any common ground.
Take Back Our Republic is a new conservative reform group that’s come onto the scene supporting certain political money reforms. What hope do you have that Congressional Republicans will actually rally around this conservative approach?
Take Back Our Republic, in my mind, is one of the most exciting things to have happened in the last five years on behalf of this cause. It’s a genuinely conservative organization.
I do think what you’re beginning to see in the Republican community—meaning those who vote Republican—is a rift occurring between the base of the Republican Party and the party elite.
The base feels as if the party is continuing to consolidate power among a corporatized establishment and as a result is going to continue to suppress or push off the base.
Part of what Take Back Our Republic has an opportunity to do is seize on some of the base’s energy. The Freedom Caucus was lobbying against the campaign-finance riders late last year, so if [the group’s Executive Director] John Pudner can organize the Freedom Caucus around this issue that’ll be fantastic.
Once you get into the actual inner workings of Congress, do you think there’s a risk that bipartisan reform efforts will ultimately just result in limited, very piecemeal legislation as opposed to substantial legislation?
I wouldn’t be doing this work if I felt all we were going to get done was a bunch of incremental stuff, because we need an overhaul.
I do think when you look at the 80 percent consensus outside the Beltway, when you look at the rise of grassroots conservatives, and when you look at the massive teachable moment that’s occurred in the last five years as a result of Citizens United, there’s a chemical mixture there that could lead to some pretty dramatic changes in the system.
Do you anticipate anything happening in the 2016 elections that will improve the prospect of bipartisan reform?
I think the thing that’ll happen in this election is people will see this as a bottoming out for what has become severe alcoholism basically. People will walk away feeling disgusted and exhausted by the process—the politicians, the consultants, the donors, the media, the views of the endless ads. Everyone is going to be disgusted—that’s a good thing because step one is having that bottoming out experience and admitting there’s a problem. We firmly believe that in the wake of 2016, it will be impossible to deny the severity of the problem.
Does translating that disgust into reform require an infusion of new members?
I think the culture’s going to shift on this one. I don’t think that we need to have some kind of reform-wave election akin to the post-Watergate election. I don’t think that’ll be necessary. It’s really a matter of finding common ground and creating a comfort zone for people who typically haven’t stood up on behalf of this cause to be able to stand up and fight for it. To do that I don’t think we have to bring in a new crop of members, I just think we need to build this issue in the right way.
Post-Citizens United, do you see a legal route to curtailing the amount of money in politics?
Well, let’s look at what we can do despite Citizens United and despite the Roberts Court. You can do public financing of elections. You can do major ethics and lobbying overhaul. You can do full and complete transparency. And you can create a functional cop on the beat, meaning an overhaul of the Federal Election Commission. You can do all that regardless of the current jurisprudence.
If we were able to accomplish all of that tomorrow, that would be 75 percent of what we’d like to see accomplished in the system. The thing that you can’t do is tinker with the independent expenditure problem, because of the jurisprudence that surrounds it.
Part of what we as reformers need to do is push back on the notion that this Court is the deathblow to money-in-politics reform, because it isn’t. There’s a ton of leeway to accomplish a lot legislatively.
What happens if we don’t get campaign-finance reform in the next few years?
I think we are firmly on the path toward becoming an oligarchy—and that sounds hyperbolic but I’m actually stealing that from George W. Bush’s communications director, who recently wrote in The Daily Beast that the current campaign-finance system lends itself more to an oligarchy than a democratic republic.
So we’re at a pivotal moment in this country’s history. We have a choice to either reassert our right to self-government or we’re going to—out of cynicism and apathy—allow an oligarchical system to completely take over.