Today, former Congressman Ron Barber, a member of ECU’s board of directors, and Congressman Brad Schneider (IL-10) penned a joint op-ed looking at the disastrous impact Judge Kavanaugh could have on our democracy by allowing special interests to spend more money with less transparency and accountability in our elections.
President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court could cement the court’s tilt in favor of big money and corporate special interests for a generation. This should serve as a clarion call for our elected officials and citizens to end the out-of-control campaign spending that is corrupting our governance. Congress must step up and pass legislation to return transparency and accountability to our political process.
Despite our deep partisan divisions, Americans of all political stripes agree that money in politics is a top concern and a key reason for the dysfunction in Washington. Polling also shows a majority of Americans want a Supreme Court justice who would allow limits on the amount of money outside groups are able to spend on political campaigns.
The problem can be traced to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United which unleashed unlimited, undisclosed political spending by corporations and wealthy individuals. The ensuing explosion of “dark money” created a fundamental shift in how campaigns are paid for. Now, instead of campaigns relying on limited, fully disclosed contributions made directly to candidates, the Citizens United decision allows affluent individuals and companies to secretly influence elections with unlimited spending.
An example: during the 2012 presidential election, just the top 32 Super PAC donors outspent the more than 4 million small dollar donors who gave less than $200. The problem is now so bad that outside spending is eclipsing candidate campaigns themselves. Before Citizens United, two-thirds of the messaging voters heard came directly from the candidates themselves; today that ratio has flipped in favor of outside groups.
This is a distorted system that grants those with extreme wealth a disproportionate voice, and leads to bad policy. For example, during consideration of last year’s tax bill, some members admitted needing to support the bill to placate donors. Not surprisingly, we ended up with a law that raises taxes on many low- and middle-income Illinoisans while top earners – and yes, big donors – reap the benefits.
A system where a few deep pockets can drown out the voices of millions is broken. But Congress has the power to fix this mess.
First, we must restore transparency to our electoral system. The DISCLOSE Act would do so by requiring Super PACs to report campaign contributions of $10,000 or more within 24 hours, requiring groups to disclose campaign contributions to their members, and requiring lobbyists to disclose their political expenditures.
Similarly, Americans should have the right to know who is behind campaign advertisements. The Keeping Our Campaigns Honest Act would direct the Federal Communications Commission to strengthen its sponsorship identification rules to require political advertisements to include the names of significant donors.
And as we limit the influence of big money donors, it’s also important to boost the voices of average Americans. The Government by the People Act would incentivize voters to engage in our political process. It would grant a 50 percent refundable tax credit on individual congressional House campaign contributions, and create a pilot program to provide voters with a $50 “My Voice Voucher” for contributions.
A Supreme Court that better balances the rights of the people with special interests could restore sanity to our campaign finance system. But Congress does not have to wait. We, a current and former member of Congress, see firsthand the corrupting influence of big money on our politics. Those in elected office have a responsibility to restore transparency and accountability to our government. Reforming our broken campaign finance system is the most important thing officeholders can do to earn back the trust of the American people.