U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Maryland’s John Sarbanes were top-billed for a roundtable discussion on “New Approaches to Fighting Big Money in Politics.” But New Haven, and Connecticut, nearly stole the show.
On a federal level, the panel agreed, our democracy is broken. Industry lobbyists write legislation. Candidates understand that if they happen to take certain policy positions, cash—and lots of it—will flow into their coffers. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgate of big-money donors influencing the electoral process, and therefore public policy.
Sarbanes (at left in photo) is the author of legislation aimed at countering the impact of Citizens United. He’s crusading across the country to sell his “Government By the People Act,” which would create public financing for federal elections. DeLauro (second from left), a co-signer and New Haven’s U.S representative, is currently on her own crusade, opposing the Obama administration’s quest for fast-track authority for a trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The two causes are related, she said: Campaign cash is used to gain influence that has resulted in 86 percent of the 600 people at the TPP negotiating table representing corporations or industry associations.
Two other members of the panel, which convened Monday night in Yale’s Linsly Chittenden Hall, made a case that New Haven specifically, and the Nutmeg state generally, are national models for countering the influence of political action committees (PACs) with effective pubic financing of elections. The clean election reforms were sparked by the state’s reputation as “Currupt-icut.” The state got that infamous moniker after John Rowland’s pay-to-play scandal, as well as similar quid pro quo scandals in several cities around the state.
New Haven is the only city in the state to have set up public financing, noted Jared Milfred (at left in photo), the chair of the New Haven Democracy Fund. The Fund matches donations up to $25 for mayoral candidates who agree to spending limits. The Fund, he noted, has been a success: It has provided public financing for seven mayoral campaigns since 2007. It has reduced the need for constant fundraising, and encourages candidates, who are working to raise money through small donations, to communicate with people in their neighborhoods—increasingly so in low-income and minority areas where voters have historically been removed from the electoral process.
In addition, he said, the fund required that donor contributions be recorded digitally to make it easier for citizens to research campaign contributions.
Milfred called campaign finance reform “the most important issue of our time.” Nothing will change, he said, “unless we get the distortive power of money out of politics.”
“Municipal campaign finance reform,” said Milfred, “can spur national change.”
State Rep. Matt Lesser (in photo) of Middletown made a similar case for Connecticut’s Citizens’ Election Program. Connecticut candidates can qualify to access public funding by raising a threshold amount in small-dollar contributions from $5 to $100. For a state Senate race, candidates must raise $15,000. For the House, $5,000.
Lesser, who said that the public funding mechanism helped him win his campaign against an incumbent Republican, said that, “Our system of campaign finance reform has changed everything.”
It is helping to bring new candidates into politics, he said, and therefore, “forces [incumbent] candidates to take races seriously.”
The law, he said, is party-blind, and benefits Republican, Democratic, and third party candidates.
Lesser described how access to public funds helped give lawmakers the support they needed to stand up to the beer distributors’ lobby. His example: the bottle law. When originally passed it allowed liquor stores to keep the “nickels” from un-returned bottles. Year after year, attempts to reclaim these funds on behalf of taxpayers failed. Finally, enough lawmakers were untethered from the need to raise their own campaign cash to pass a bill that captured those nickels for the state.
Sarbanes’ The Government By the People Act would take some of the elements in place in Connecticut and apply the strategy to federal races.
Sarbanes said his bill would multiply the impact of small-dollar donations by matching their contributions of $150 or less to a Congressional candidate who forgoes traditional PAC money. His bill would match some donations at a 6:1 rate, turning a $50 contribution into a $350 contribution. For candidates who agree to take only small-dollar donations, the $50 contribution can become a $500 contribution – matched at a rate of $9 to $1.
The potential for this trigger, he said, is the power of the house party. Twenty guests with $50 donations each suddenly becomes 20 guests contributing $500 each—for a total haul of $10,000. These voters would suddenly have the ear of the candidate, on a par with most lobbyists.
The Maryland congressman’s bill also includes a provision for countering late-campaign big-money attack ads that have proliferated in the wake of the Citizens United decision. Citizen-funded candidates who raise at least $50,000 in additional small-dollar donations within the 60-day “home stretch” of the general election would be eligible for additional resources.
The cost? Sarbanes said that it would “scale up” after 10 years to an average of $500 million per year. He believes that the reform is cost-saving to the taxpayer. He envisions that it will empower lawmakers to reduce corporate welfare and close industry loopholes and tax breaks that cost the federal government big money. “It’s an investment well worth making,” he said.
DeLauro spelled out some of the other costs of the impact of big money in politics in her remarks, not all of which necessarily appear on the budget ledger.
Big money inflates the cost of the drugs we need, she said, as pharmaceutical companies lobby to resist government price controls. It keeps the minimum wage low. It is the reason Congress hasn’t been able to update the Toxic Substances Control Act since it was passed in 1976.
Corporate and trade association lobbying also is fueling the drive to pass fast-track approval for the secret negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which, she said, will gut food safety regulations and cost Americans jobs.
“Money speaks,” she said, “and it has taken over.”