Rep. John Sarbanes and a Campaign Finance Reform Plan That Might Actually Work

The Supreme Court says we can't limit campaign donations from the top 0.01 percent. But what if there were a way to amplify money from the bottom 99.99 percent?

Democratic congressional candidate John Sarbanes, at podium, speaks as his father,  retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes,D-Md., third from right, looks on, at an election night party in Baltimore, Md., Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006. From left, are, John Sarbanes'   wife Dina, his  daughter Stephanie; 15 , his son Niko, 12, and son Leo, 7, front, next to podium.  (AP Photo/Timothy Jacobsen)

For most people, I think, the unremitting news about how the richest 0.01 percent own American politics is like a doctor who tells you you have a terrible disease — and when you ask what the treatment is, says I have absolutely no idea.

Then the doctor starts calling you up first thing every morning at 8 a.m. to say I just want to remind you that you have a terrible disease. Around the 10th call you stop answering the phone, no matter how awful you feel.

That’s especially so ever since the Supreme Court declared even the flimsy restrictions on money in politics put in place since the 1970s to be unconstitutional. If our only hope is to amend the Constitution — which requires first a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate and then approval from three-fourths of the 50 state legislatures — then it feels like we’re doomed.

But what if there were a way to approach this hellish problem from the opposite direction? If we’re forbidden by the Supreme Court from limiting money coming from the 0.01 percent, what about amplifying money from the bottom 99.99 percent?

That’s the basis for the Government by the People Act, introduced last year by Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland’s 3rd District. (If the name sounds familiar, that’s probably because his father, Paul, was a five-term senator from Maryland.)

Sarbanes has quietly garnered 160 co-sponsors for the bill and support from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and a companion bill in the Senate introduced by Dick Durbin (D–Ill.) has 19 co-sponsors.

The bill has three main parts:

  •  Everyone gets $25 to donate to candidates

All voters receive $25 per year to give to political campaigns, provided in the form of a refundable tax credit equal to half of donations up to $50. (For instance, if you donate $30 to a candidate, you get $15 of that back; to get the full $25 you have to donate $50.)

  • 6 to 1 matching funds (at least) for small donors 

Donations up to $150 to qualifying House and Senate candidates are matched 6 to 1 with public money. In other words, if your next door neighbor is running for Congress and you give her $50, she’ll get another $300, making $350 total.

And donations are matched 9 to 1 for candidates who completely renounce big money and take only donations of $150 or less. So if your neighbor is willing to do that, your $50 donation would turn into $500 total for her. (Moreover, if you use your $25 tax credit, that $500 she received would only cost you $25 total.)

  • Help for candidates facing an onslaught of SuperPAC money, dark money, etc.

Candidates would be eligible for enhanced matching funds in the last 60 days before an election, with incentives so they would only access the funds if it’s a particularly high-cost race.

• • •

I recently spoke with Rep. Sarbanes in depth about the Government by the People Act. In the first part of the interview he explains the rationale for his bill, how it would change politicians’ behavior and how similar systems are already having an impact on a state and local level. In part two Sarbanes describes how he markets this idea, why it could not just change campaign financing but plausibly diminish the impact of big-money lobbying, and how it would keep incumbents like himself on their toes.

(This post is from our blog: Unofficial Sources.)

Photo: Timothy Jacobsen/AP

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