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House Democrats and Nancy Pelosi waste no time, announce bill tackling America's corrupt campaign finance system

There is a historic effort underway to revitalize our political system and overcome the terrible influence of political money.
Image: Nancy Pelosi, Eric Swalwell, Joyce Beatty
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. speaks to media at Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 28, 2018, to announce her nomination by House Democrats to lead them in the new Congress. Carolyn Kaster / AP

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has revealed that political reform will be the first order of business for the Democratic House of Representatives in January. On Nov. 30, she announced that House Democrats would begin the new congressional session with an unprecedented package of reforms designed to repair our broken political system and strength our democracy.

The coming legislation, already known as H.R. 1, involves a holistic approach — covering campaign finance, voting rights and government ethics reforms. One essential feature is a new way to finance campaigns that would combat big money’s corrupting influence in American politics.

Wealthy donors and special interests now drown elections in an ocean of influence-seeking and dark money. We can greatly diminish their corrupting influence on government decisions by flooding elections with small contributions, bolstered by robust public matching funds.

Wealthy donors and special interests now drown elections in an ocean of influence-seeking and dark money.

The Democrats’ bill would do this by creating a system in which small contributions to candidates, up to $200 per donor, are matched with public funds at a 6 to 1 ratio. In return, candidates who participate would agree to a substantially lower contribution limit than the current one.

Without setting up an alternative means for candidates to finance their campaigns, there is no way to end Washington corruption. No way to un-rig the system.

And voters want this done. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed 77 percent of registered voters said “reducing the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” is “the most important or a very important issue facing the country.”

New Democratic House candidates running in 2018 understood this. During the midterm elections, 107 of these new politicians sent a letter to House members detailing the dangers of Washington corruption and special interest influence. Close to 50 of those Democratic candidates won House seats in November.

The letter called for bold and sweeping political reforms as the first item of business in the new Congress: “We hear day in and day out that special interests are drowning out the voices of everyday citizens — to the point where many Americans no longer believe their votes even count.”

With the American people deeply concerned about Washington’s rigged system, the opportunity exists to fix it. These opportunities don’t come along very often. When they do, the moment must be seized.

Creating a new small donor, public matching funds system would:

  • Provide the funding necessary for congressional and presidential candidates to run competitive races without becoming obligated to influence-seeking funders;
  • Empower ordinary Americans by making their small contributions far more valuable to candidates in financing their elections;
  • Open the door to new candidates from all walks of life by providing them with the ability to raise the funds needed to run for office; and
  • Greatly reduce the power and influence of big money funders, who would have far less impact on elections and far less influence over government policies.

Here is an example of the current system: In the 2016 presidential elections, 100 super-rich Americans gave a stunning $1 billionto Super PACs to influence federal races — an average of $10 million per donor. In total, wealthy donors gave $1.8 billion in unlimited contributions.

In 2017, it looks like those donors got their payback.

Congress enacted a tax bill that provided grossly disproportionate benefits to the wealthy. The largest initial cuts, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, went to taxpayers in the 95th to 99th percentiles of the income distribution. By 2027, 83 percent of the total benefits will go to the top 1 percent of the income distribution, the center says, while more than half of all Americans would pay more in taxes.

This is just one example of the many public policy decisions in which wealthy donors and powerful interests win and ordinary Americans lose. Whether it’s more affordable health care, lower prescription drug prices or efforts to fight climate change, Americans see influence-money funders prevail at their expense.

This is just one example of the many public policy decisions in which wealthy donors and powerful interests win and ordinary Americans lose.

The 2018 election cycle continued the big money onslaught, breaking records for midterms. This year saw record spending of more than $5 billion, along with record giving of $1.3 billion by the super-rich in unlimited contributions to Super PACs.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 set the stage to allow huge, unlimited contributions to pour into our elections. As long as Citizens United is the law of the land, these influence-seeking contributions will continue to be spent by outside groups to influence federal elections.

Yet history shows that public financing of elections, like the kind to be proposed in H.R.1, can succeed as an antidote to corrupting political money.

The presidential public financing system enacted in response to the Watergate scandals in the 1970s worked well for candidates of both major parties and the American people for more than two decades. This system, Washington Post columnist E.J Dionne wrote, “was that rare reform that accomplished exactly what it was supposed to achieve.”

But the public finance system ultimately broke down because of the exponential increases in the cost of presidential campaigns — and Congress’s failure to update the system in response.

The effort to revitalize our political system and overcome our corrupt campaign finance system is expected to take place over the next three to five years. Remember that the last major campaign reform legislation, enacted in 2002 and known as McCain-Feingold, took five years to become law.

The campaign finance system we have today, however, takes us back to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when robber barons owned and operated Congress.

A difficult battle lies ahead. We are dealing with power exercised by the super-rich and special interests through political donations. This is a fight that must be won to end the corrupt, rigged system in Washington — and protect the integrity and health of our democracy.

In January, Pelosi and House Democrats will begin the first chapter of this historic battle.