Washington Memo: Our democracy needs campaign finance reform

Last modified: 1/28/2014 12:18:15 AM
New Hampshire has a strong tradition of civic engagement, but communities and individuals are competing on an uneven playing field against entrenched, well-funded special interests.

This week marks four long years since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision – and four years of congressional inaction in addressing this critical issue.

Before Citizens United, our nation’s campaign finance laws were already in need of reform. This court decision made a bad situation much worse by opening the floodgates for even more outside spending and undue influence on our elections.

For our government to be truly accountable and responsive to the American people, we must reform our electoral system so that every American can play an active and equal role in our democracy.

To that end, this month I am joining U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland in sponsoring a proposal that would enhance the impact of everyday people on our elections. Together, we are introducing the Government by the People Act, a package of reforms designed to amplify the voices of individuals in congressional elections.

Our goal is simple: By encouraging individual involvement in politics in tangible ways, our government will be more representative of and responsive to the American people.

This legislation would accomplish this by establishing three avenues of public financing for grassroots donors and candidates.

To empower everyday Americans to participate in congressional elections, our legislation would provide individuals with a “My Voice” $25 refundable tax credit to spur small contributions to candidates.

Our bill would also present candidates with a viable alternative to the current campaign finance system. Under our plan, smaller contributions to candidates who attract significant grassroots support and forgo traditional political action committee funding would be matched at a six-to-one rate. In addition, candidates who opt to only accept smaller contributions would have their small donations matched at an even higher rate.

Finally, the Government by the People Act would make additional funding available to grassroots campaigns in the final two months of their campaigns, countering the last-minute influence of super-PACs and other outside groups that can flood the final weeks of a campaign with negative ads in an effort drown out competing messages.

Together, these reforms would increase competition in our electoral system. By lowering the financial bar for running for office, more candidates would be empowered to pursue public service and offer new ideas and fresh perspectives.

Importantly, none of these reforms would limit our constitutionally protected right to free speech, as it has been defined by the Supreme Court. Instead of restricting options for political donors and candidates, our legislation would encourage broader participation in politics.

If our proposal were to be enacted, candidates could choose to remain in the current campaign finance system. However, candidates interested in spending more time earning grassroots support and less time pursuing traditional funding would have the option of following a new path to elected office.

We cannot afford the cost of inaction. Under the status quo, our government continues to waste billions of dollars on policies designed to support special interests – not the public interest.

Corporations exploit tax loopholes while offshoring American jobs. Massive agri-businesses collect subsidies at the expense of family farms.

And big oil companies enjoy corporate welfare while endangering the quality of our air and water.

Special interests fought to secure these policies, which significantly add to our national debt every year. And special interests are using our broken campaign finance system to continue this cycle of 

I have no doubt that these policies would be reversed if we increased the impact of ordinary people on our elections.

The Government by the People Act wouldn’t solve every problem with our campaign finance system, but by amplifying the voice of everyday Americans it would be a great step forward for our democracy.

(U.S. Annie Kuster represents New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District.)

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