This weekend, Hillary Clinton released a video in which she made specific commitments to reform the U.S. campaign finance system. Unfortunately, she put the least important parts first and the most important part last:
Today I’m announcing that in my first 30 days as president, I will propose a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and give the American people, all of us, the chance to reclaim our democracy. I will also appoint Supreme Court justices who understand that this decision was a disaster for our democracy. And I will fight for other progressive reforms including small dollar matching and disclosure requirements.
Presidents play essentially no role in amending the Constitution. Any amendment Clinton proposed would have to be passed by a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, and then would have to be ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states.
That’s never going to happen. The U.S. has amended the Constitution just once in the past 45 years, with the non-earthshaking 27th Amendment prohibiting Congress from voting itself a pay raise that takes effect before the next election. (Moreover, the 27th Amendment was submitted to the states in 1789; it then took 203 years for three-fourths of the states to ratify it in 1992.)
So Clinton’s constitutional amendment pledge is empty grandstanding. Citizens United will either be overturned by the Supreme Court, or it will remain law.
On the other hand, Clinton’s pledge to “fight” for small-donor matching funds is genuinely important. Over the past several years, almost all Democrats in the House and many in the Senate have signed on in support of the idea, and it would change the dynamics of money in politics in a way that even overturning Citizens United would not.
The concept is straightforward: Small donations to candidates for Congress or president would be matched by public funds at some high ratio.
A bill introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., would match donations up to $150 at a ratio of 6-to-1. So if your neighbor were running for Congress and you donated $50 to her campaign, she would receive an additional $300, for a total of $350.
Even better, if candidates completely renounce taking any donation over $150, Sarbanes’s law would increase the matching ratio to 9-to-1. So if your neighbor were running a campaign fueled purely by small donors, and you gave $50, she’d receive an additional $450, for a total of $500.
As Sarbanes explained in an interview last year, this would make it more valuable for a representative to attend a house party in his or her district with 30 small-donor constituents than to attend a K Street fundraiser.
Small-donor matching funds would also make a huge difference in presidential politics. Bernie Sanders would have out-raised Clinton almost 2-to-1 in the 2016 Democratic primary with such a system. Moreover, the extra money from small-donor matching would have swamped the money available from Super PACs for both Democrats and Republicans.
So if Clinton is elected next year, don’t judge her commitment to changing big money politics by her pledge on Citizens United. Look at whether she puts real political capital behind making small-donor matching funds a reality.