Bernie Wants to Get Money Out of Politics. So Where’s His Plan?

Bernie Wants to Get Money Out of Politics. So Where’s His Plan?

While Bernie isn’t short on rhetoric about getting money out of politics, he remains curiously short on specifics.

For the past couple months, I’ve been chronicling the emerging debate over the role of money in politics and the increased calls for campaign-finance reform within the Democratic field. The most notable development in the political discourse on the left has been a move beyond the boilerplate talking points about overturning Citizens United toward a commitment to a public funding mechanism for federal elections—a policy point that campaign-finance reform advocates have become more adamant about.

As government reformer Zephyr Teachout told me in an interview back in July (before any candidate had really talked much about public funding), “We’re not going to let any candidates get away with saying that they’re pro-reform unless they’re talking about public financing.”

A couple weeks ago, Hillary Clinton came out with a highly ambitious campaign-finance reform plan. Then last week, Martin O’Malley unveiled his own detailed plan.

This raises the question: Where in the world is Bernie’s plan? More than any candidate, he’s been calling for reducing the influence of money in politics. Yet he hasn’t really specified exactly how he intends to do that. His campaign website has a policy section called “Getting Big Money Out of Politics,” but it’s rather sparse. Two of his listed key actions include his introduction of legislation to overturn Citizens United and a pledge to only appoint justices who are committed to rolling back the Roberts jurisprudence on campaign-finance reform. Another is the fact that he voted for the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that would work to uncover dark money, which nearly got passed before a last-minute Republican filibuster.

Sanders has an advantage in that he can use his senatorial record and the legislation he introduced to serve as a surrogate to a patchwork of detailed policy papers. For example, while Clinton pledged to pass an executive order that would require federal contractors to disclose dark-money spending, Sanders was one of a handful of senators who wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to sign an order of his own.

He also announced early in August that he would introduce legislation that would institute public funding for federal elections—his office says that small-donor matching is a tenet of the proposed bill. However, it’s been about two months and we’ve yet to see any specifics on it. 

Seeing the language of the bill would help us see just how robust a public-finance system Sanders envisions. Senator Dick Durbin has already introduced the Fair Elections Act in the Senate, which would institute a public-finance system for federal elections—it will be interesting to see whether a Sanders plan would be different.

However, I find it curious that Sanders has yet to set in stone a money-in-politics plan. While the other two candidates have already staked out very strong policies that are pulled from reformers’ wish lists, having clarified policies on everything from FEC reform and SEC disclosure rules to independent redistricting, Bernie needs to push out some bold specifics if he wants to maintain his brand as the money-in-politics reformer of the race.