Why It Will Take Another Watergate to Pass Campaign Finance Reform

Why It Will Take Another Watergate to Pass Campaign Finance Reform

Back in January, Congressman John Sarbanes introduced the Government By the People Act. It’s an ambitious bill that would bring a sea change to our much-maligned campaign finance system.

The bill has three main tenets aimed at amplifying the power of small donors. It would create a $25 tax credit for political donations up to $50; establish a six-to-one matching system for donations up to $150 to House and Senate candidates; give enhanced matching funds to candidates who are combating significant outside spending. Small donors would also be able to bundle contributions into something of a People’s PAC.

Essentially, by increasing the monetary footprint of small donors, this would give incentive to politicians to talk more with everyday constituents about things that impact them rather than jet-setting across the country going to fundraisers and only hearing about the importance of keeping the carried-interest loophole in place. And yes, it is sad that it takes a piece of legislation to make politicians campaign to the people they actually represent.

The legislation is based on past campaign finance reform legislation, just modernized to deal with the post-Citizens United world we live in. It also borrows from some of the most effective policies that states and cities have successfully implemented. Critically, the legislation follows the one pathway the courts have left to even the playing field: adding more, not less, money to politics.

“If this bill became law, it would greatly change the priorities of Congress, making them more responsive to the priorities of everyday Americans,” says Aaron Scherb, the legislative affairs director for Common Cause.

Along with Sarbanes, 149 Democrats and (surprisingly) one Republican have co-sponsored the legislation. There’s also a similar companion bill in the Senate sponsored by Senator Dick Durbin. The law stems from the Fair Elections Now Act of 2008, which nearly passed when Democrats had control of Congress. But with a Republican-controlled Congress that has shown less than no interest in considering campaign finance reform, things look bleak. It failed to gain traction when introduced in the 112th and 113th Congress. This time around, GovTrack gives it a full 0 percent chance of being enacted.

Scherb puts it a little more clearly: “We’ll probably have to wait for a scandal or a crisis to occur for it to pass.”

Still, Sarbanes remains adamant that it can pass—and he appears to be going on something of media campaign to get the word out. Last month he did an interview with The Washington Post and Washington Monthly. And this week, Jon Schwarz of The Intercept published an interesting two-part interview with the Congressman.  

“It’s like with that Verizon ad: ‘Can you hear me now?’ Right now candidates can only hear the $1000 donor, the PAC donor. But if you have those people sitting in that living room with that match, all of a sudden you can hear them,” Sarbanes tells The Intercept.

The second installation of the interview gets into how Sarbanes goes about marketing an issue with a lot of populist support but next to no political feasibility: “Somebody’s going to own your government. It’s not going to just sit there unattended. It’s either going to be owned by special interests and big money, in which case when it comes to making policy that’s who we’ll work for. Or it’s going to be owned by you. And in America, if you want to own something, you’ve got to pay for it.”

The point being: democracy will come with a price tag. But first, somebody is probably going to have to get caught with their hand in the industry cookie jar in a very big way.