Getting big money out of politics: Where do we go from here?

By Rick Bourdon
Co-chair, Open Democracy Action

Americans get it. We are divided on many issues, but the need to reform the way campaigns are funded is not one of them.

In a Bloomberg Politics national poll last year, 78 percent of respondents agreed that the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision−the ruling largely responsible for the deluge of political spending since 2010−be overturned. Eighty-seven percent want a campaign finance system in which the wealthy have no more political influence than the less well-off. Answers varied little by respondents' party affiliation or ideology.

Such results underscore broad consensus on the twin threads of this country's democracy movement: (1) curbing corruption and (2) ensuring an equal voice for all. The problem is understood.

But what about the solution? I wish I could say that simply overturning Citizens United will cure all ills. It won't. The real answer is−well, it's complicated. No standalone measure can do the job. We must move on a number of fronts both in Washington and here in New Hampshire.

Citizens United. The Court's ruling declared that corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals may spend as much as they like in support of candidates so long as they do not coordinate with candidates' campaigns. The 5-4 decision enabled unregulated "independent spending" by mega donors and paved the way for the superPACs that fund so many of the political TV ads and fliers we see daily. While overturning Citizens United, whether through a constitutional amendment or test case brought before the Court, will certainly help, let's remember that the influence of wealth in politics was substantial long before Citizens United. We need to do more to address the underlying problem.

Public funding. Public funding of elections is, for many, the holy grail of campaign finance reform. There are a number of state public funding schemes, all premised on the idea that potential for corruption is vastly reduced when campaigns are funded by many small donations as opposed to a small number of large ones. Some offer small-donor vouchers or tax rebates to encourage participation in the political process and give greater voice to those who couldn't otherwise afford it.

Public funding is criticized for its cost, but by freeing lawmakers from the pressure to provide giveaways to powerful interests, it may well save money. One worry, however, is that a flood of independent spending by superPACs and others may make small-donation schemes unsustainable. Public funding becomes more attractive if we solve the independent spending problem (see Citizens United above).

Transparency. Many politicians, conservatives in particular, maintain that money in politics is not an issue so long as we know where it is coming from. The problem is, we don't. "Dark money" groups hide their donors' identities, and late deadlines for filing campaign data and inadequate databases make following the money difficult. Transparency could be greatly improved through regulatory reform and creative use of technology.

Lobbying reform. Lobbying firms at both the state and federal level give generously to campaigns and often organize fundraisers for elected officials. These groups have a right to present their case to lawmakers, but by providing campaign support they exert an influence well beyond the power of their arguments. Regulatory change is needed.

The revolving door. Of the 48 members of Congress who gained new employment after leaving office in 2012, more than 65% joined lobbying firms or their client companies. Promises of high-paying jobs, however subtle, create a clear conflict of interest. The fix: legislation mandating a lengthy period between government service and lobbying work.

Enforcement. Campaign finance laws are toothless without enforcement. The Federal Election Commission, hopelessly deadlocked with six commissioners−three Democrats and three Republicans−is a timid watchdog. If the six were charged with electing a seventh, they might get something done. If New Hampshire's record is typical, enforcement of campaign finance law isn't high on the list for most states either.

Gerrymandering and voter suppression. District boundaries drawn to benefit a particular party and policies that create barriers to voting for targeted groups may not fit nicely under the money-in-politics umbrella, but they undoubtedly work against the ideal of an equal voice for all. A number of states have created nonpartisan redistricting commissions to address gerrymandering. Iowa's system is a particularly successful example. And voter suppression should be outlawed.

The way ahead for political reform is complex, but that makes it no less important. Bills addressing each of the concerns here exist at the federal level. A number of related bills are slated for the next session of the New Hampshire Legislature as well. We need to let our representatives know where we stand on these issues and hold them accountable.

In August, Open Democracy Action distributed money-in-politics related questionnaires to all New Hampshire candidates for state and federal office. Click here to see how respondents scored.

Open Democracy Action, a statewide organization based in Concord, N.H., works to bring about and safeguard political equality for the people of New Hampshire. This will only happen through an open, accountable, and trusted democratic government, “of, by, and for the people,” that is free from the corrupting influence of big-money politics and control.

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