BY FORMER REPS. JOE CUNNINGHAM (D-S.C.) AND MAX ROSE (D-N.Y.), OPINION CONTRIBUTOR
When we both ran for Congress in 2018, we promised voters we’d stand up for them in Washington instead of special interests and corporate donors. We followed through on our word by making one of the most important decisions of our campaigns — refusing to accept corporate PAC money –– and flipped competitive districts as a result.
We lost our races for reelection in November. The losses hurt, but at the end of the day, we’re proud of what we accomplished in Congress. We’re equally proud that we did it while fulfilling our promises to refuse corporate PAC money. We kept our word to stand up against the special interests that have outsized influence over Washington.
It’s safe to say that Staten Island, N.Y., and the Lowcountry of South Carolina are very different places. But campaigning in 2018 made it abundantly clear that our districts were bound by voters’ shared frustration that Washington wasn’t working for them. That’s why we told corporate PACs to keep their money as part of our efforts to root out corruption and fight back on Big Oil’s efforts to drill off our coastline and stop Big Pharma from continuing to hike prescription drug prices.
For us, making the decision to reject corporate PAC money wasn’t about politics but doing what was right –– being able to return back home to our districts and tell our constituents face to face that we were fighting for them and not corporations. It was about doing the job we were elected to do with honesty and integrity.
And we weren’t alone.
Just over half of our 2019 Democratic freshman class pledged not to take corporate PAC money, helping bring the total number of members of Congress who refused the money from less than 10 to 60. In 2020, even more candidates pledged not to take corporate PAC money and two thirds of the incoming freshman class have made this commitment, as well as all three incoming Democratic senators. The movement is growing.
Despite the momentum, this isn’t the norm in Congress. Special interests, mega-donors, and K Street lobbyists have a corrupt bargain with too many politicians for access and influence. When corporate interests hold more sway in Congress than voters, communities like the Lowcountry and Staten Island pay the price. In the first 18 months of the 2020 cycle, 1,712 corporate PACs contributed over $123 million to candidates. That’s more than any other type of PAC. Politics shouldn’t work that way.
To be sure, corporate PACs aren’t the only –– or even the biggest –– problem with money in politics in Washington. But refusing that money was one element under our direct control. And we went further than most. Joe turned away money from all PACs, and Max didn’t take money from lobbyists. When it came to the larger systemic problems-like super PACs and dark money- we rolled up our sleeves and got straight to work to clean up Washington’s corruption.
Alongside our Democratic freshman colleagues, we fought to make the first House bill of the 116th Congress the For the People Act, the most sweeping anti-corruption and government ethics bill in generations. Max started the End Corruption Caucus with Rep. Katie Porter and introduced the Ban Corporate PACs Act with Reps. Josh Harder and Antonio Delgado. Joe was consistently ranked one of the most bipartisan members of Congress and passed legislation to ban offshore drilling –– he even brought an air horn to a committee hearing in a demonstration against the harmful impacts of Big Oil’s seismic testing. From Day One on Capitol Hill, we made reform a first priority in Congress because Washington is broken and it was time for a new generation of leaders to step up and fix it.
With the 116th Congress over, we’re leaving Washington the same way we came — unbeholden to special interests and determined to fight for Staten Island and the Lowcountry with integrity by standing up to corruption to make a real difference in peoples’ lives. There’s a lot more progress to be made, but no matter what, we were proud to do our part by rejecting corporate PAC money.
Joe Cunningham represented South Carolina’s 1st District in the United States House of Representatives. Max Rose represented New York’s 11th District in the United States House of Representatives.