WASHINGTON – Despite long odds, Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Towson, is attempting to revive campaign finance reform legislation he says will give citizens more power in government.
Sarbanes has proposed the Government by the People Act, which would give citizens a tax credit of up to $25 to donate to campaigns and match small donations to amplify small givers’ power. He said he hopes to give those small donors a voice in campaigns and decrease the influence of big contributors and special interests. In the last election cycle, Sarbanes was the only member of Congress to not take PAC (political action committee) money.
Despite the bill’s low chances of getting through the Republican-controlled House, Sarbanes is still pushing for the legislation.
In fact, the bill has a zero percent chance of being enacted, according to GovTrack.us, a nonpartisan website geared toward helping users track bills and other activities of lawmakers.
Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs with Common Cause, a nonpartisan grassroots organization that works toward open government, agrees that short-term chances of the bill passing are slim.
However, he said Common Cause is continuing to build support for the legislation so it will be “ready for the right moment,” which he said would be a campaign fundraising scandal.
His organization also is working to pass similar reforms at local levels around the country so it will be more likely that the bill will pass in Congress, he said.
“Congress will catch up eventually and we’ll ultimately pass Government By the People Act so Congress won’t have to rely on (big money),” Scherb said.
But Robert Burchfield, a Washington attorney who has represented Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the Republican National Committee in Supreme Court cases that successfully challenged campaign finance donation limits, said the constitutional issues cannot be ignored.
“The basic point is, most (campaign finance reform bills) have the effect of suppressing vibrant political speech and it’s easy to wrap them in a high-sounding effort to equalize speech or level the playing field or those sorts of things,” said Burchfield, a partner in the Washington office of King & Spalding.
“But those concepts in political debate often restrict debate and courts are not very sympathetic toward them,” he added.
The legislation doesn’t interfere with the First Amendment, Sarbanes countered, because it doesn’t limit speech; rather, it adds speech. The proposed legislation “amplifies the voice of the small donor so that they can be heard again,” he said.
Sarbanes said his bill is bipartisan, though only one co-sponsor is a Republican, in contrast to the more than 150 Democratic backers. The measure is also supported by more than 50 national organizations and a petition signed by nearly half a million citizens.
The Sarbanes bill “will greatly decrease the reliance on big donors and special interests and lobbyists who are right now the key funders of congressional campaigns,” Scherb said. The bill wants to “shift that focus so members of Congress can spend more time with everyday people, with their constituents.”
Small donors often don’t feel like they have a voice in politics, Sarbanes said in a HuffPost live speech in late September, and according to polls, this affects both parties. With this reform, “millions of Americans will step into the game, participate in the funding side of the campaign, and in return candidates will pay attention to them,” the congressman said.
When groups contribute big money to candidates, those candidates, once they become officeholders, are indebted to the major donors, Sarbanes said.
“You’ve got to find a way to bring those small donors in because they’re the leverage in the system,” he said.
The Government By the People Act is an effort to keep leaders from leaning toward the special interests, Wall Street, and the big companies rather than the people, he said.
“All of the candidates recognize that they have to speak to the sense of frustration voters are feeling,” he said. “The Democratic candidates, and frankly some of the Republican candidates as well, understand that cynicism and they’re trying to address it.”
Sarbanes said he believes there should be more transparency and disclosure, and candidates that are elected should owe more to the people than to big donors.
“If we can create a system where candidates are more dependent on the people,” he said, “when they get in office and a public policy issue comes before them … (then) they are able to stick with their convictions because the only people they owe are the broad public.”
Large contributions are disenfranchising too many people, he argued. “Minority candidates, women candidates, and candidates who don’t know a lot of people with a lot of money are being filtered out of our system which is outrageous, because they’ll be the best advocates … for the communities they represent,” Sarbanes said.