Since the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United v. FEC ruling exactly six years ago, the massive influx of outside groups propped up by billionaire donors has sparked a national conversation about the growing influence of money in the American political system. And as the conversation advances, a whole host of solutions have been proposed for curtailing big money in politics.
On the sixth anniversary of Citizens United, which the Supreme Court handed down on January 21, 2010, the Prospect spoke with Maryland Representative John Sarbanes, one of the leading proponents of campaign-finance reform on Capitol Hill. Sarbanes talked about the impact of Citizens United on Congress and the path forward for leveling the political playing field.
A Democrat, Sarbanes has convinced the majority of his caucus to support his Government By the People Act, a bill that would institute a public financing system for federal candidates and would amplify small donations with matching federal funds.
Sarbanes says that since the 2010 ruling, which unleashed a new rash of outside spending, big money’s presence is palpable on Capitol Hill. “There’s a heightened feeling among members of Congress that you’re moving around inside a system that is overwhelmed with money,” Sarbanes told the Prospect, “and that it’s distortive of the way politics and policy gets made in Washington."
As the Prospect’s Eliza Newlin Carney writes, Citizens United has become a pivotal rallying point for reform advocates, who early on after the Court’s ruling launched an ambitious campaign to overturn it with a constitutional amendment. But at a time of historic partisan polarization nationwide, that effort faces substantial obstacles.
“I think the people assembled [around a constitutional amendment] with unrealistic expectations about how quickly you can achieve that,” says Sarbanes. “It is a tough road.”
The congressman believes that there are better ways for those who are angered about the decision, and about the role of money in politics, to take action. “If people are all dressed up, you want them to have places for them to go that are positive outlets for their anger,” said Sarbanes. He argues that the best outlet for public anger right now is at the state and local level, where campaign-finance reform measures have enjoyed much more success.
In just the last year, as I reported in the Prospect’s fall issue, both Maine and Seattle passed ballot measures that created strong public campaign-financing systems. States like Arizona and Connecticut, and major cities like New York City and Los Angeles, have also instituted innovative new ways for funding campaigns aimed at boosting the voices of average citizens.
For Sarbanes, the solution is to create competing systems of power—fueled by small donors—that can counterbalance the influence of big donors.
“If you want to address the cynicism people feel, you have to give them solutions [in which] they see themselves as power players in the system just like Sheldon Adelson,” he says, referring to the casino magnate and GOP mega-donor.