Money Trail: As the walk for campaign finance reform concludes, next steps on the horizon

Last modified: 7/14/2015 7:42:32 PM
As members of the New Hampshire Rebellion try to take the next step in campaign finance reform, they stand to alienate some of their allies.

New Hampshire native Doris “Granny D” Haddock walked across the country at the age of 90 for campaign finance reform and held basic signs with a simple message, like “money out of politics.”

Sixteen years later, walkers in New Hampshire had more direct messages, like “Give every voter a $50 voucher that he or she can use to fund candidates who agree to accept only small-dollar donations.”

To be sure, there are many proposals. They start small, by making city and state-level changes until the federal government is forced to follow along, and large, by hounding presidential candidates with the question until would-be chief executives are forced to describe their plans. Some propose amplifying the ordinary voter’s power as a donor through a voucher or federally backed matching funds, while others would start in a different way with term limits and a focus on ending big money in politics.

N.H. Rebellion founder and Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig says the American political system has become un-democratic in that a tiny fraction of the 1 percent of richest Americans decide with their campaign donations who can run in the primary.

To combat that, the country needs to spread out the influence, Lessig said.

Vouchers and matching funds

Lessig said he drew up a voucher plan that gives each voter $50 worth of so-called Democracy Dollars to give to candidates who limit themselves to small contributions of up to $100. He said it would cost about $3.5 billion a year, but he expects there to be a savings in the longrun.

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, says that corporate welfare in the federal budget costs taxpayers nearly $100 billion a year.

“We give corporate welfare as the quid pro quo for the campaign funds which the corporations help facilitate. If we didn’t have campaign funds like that, we wouldn’t need to spend that much in corporate welfare. If you reduce it just by 10 percent, you’d more than double pay back the cost of the vouchers,” Lessig said. “It costs money, but it’s a sort of investment with incredibly high return.”

The Government by the People Act, introduced in February 2014 and backed by Democrats with support from U.S. Reps. Annie Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter, would have provided a $25 tax credit to spur contributions to candidates for congressional office and provided 6 to 1 matching for donations of up to $150 if they’re directed at a candidate who forgoes traditional PAC money. And for candidates who accept only small-dollar donations, contributions would be matched 9 to 1 under the bill.

In either plan, Lessig said, candidates would cease spending 30 percent to 70 percent of their time soliciting donations from rich donors and instead find a way to appeal to the broadest possible audience to fund their campaigns, “which, in a democracy, isn’t a bad idea.” Both proposals would also allow candidates to opt out and live under the current system.

Jim Rubens, a Republican and former state senator who was defeated in the 2014 primary by Scott Brown, campaigned on a voucher system. He said his plan would have given a $50 tax rebate back to voters that they could use to help a politician who didn’t accept donations larger than $100 to $200 and didn’t accept PAC money.

“The sum of money would be about equal to the special interest funding system we have now,” he said.

Rubens also pushed for expanded transparency and real-time online disclosure of campaign financing from all sources – to wipe out untraceable “dark money.”

In an interview outside the culminating N.H. Rebellion rally outside the State House last week, Rubens said the final point of his plan would clash with the thinking of many people gathered there, who moments earlier were shouting angrily at the ideology of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. He said he favors removing all restrictions on contributions, since “no matter how many laws are passed, there’s always going to be a new loophole.”

“I would prefer the money to go directly to politicians,” he said. “If ExxonMobil wants to buy a politician, let them do so. Disclose it to the public. Let the public decide.”

He said he didn’t think removing limits on campaign donations would increase the amount of money spent on elections.

“You can’t (run) with not enough money, but once you have enough, more is not going to alter the outcome of the election that much,” he said.

Rubens said for the U.S. Senate primary in New Hampshire, $3 million is enough to run. He said for the general election, you would need $5 million to $10 million.

Bottom-up efforts

Other groups, such as Wolf PAC, the political arm of the largest online news network, The Young Turks, aren’t just looking to change the law – they want to change the Constitution.

Wolf PAC has already seen three states – Vermont, California and Illinois – pass its language calling for an Article V amendments convention.

“Asking Congress to fix Congress is like asking cancer to cure cancer,” Executive Director Ryan Clayton said. So he’s attempting to amend the Constitution without Congress’s help: by calling on two-thirds of the states to call for a convention, where delegates can hash out an appropriate solution.

Clayton said Wolf PAC is going to help introduce bills in 20 states this year.

If amending the Constitution is the extremely ambitious side of the spectrum, Represent.Us has decided to focus on what’s immediately attainable. Director Josh Silver said his plan is to start at the bottom, in cities and states, and force action at the top.

The model follows the logic of the marriage equality and marijuana legalization movements. Silver said those were going nowhere in Congress, and organizers started to focus on changing the law locally.

“If you look at the political map on those issues, it’s a complete game-changer,” Silver said. “They have won huge victories that were thought to be impossible 10 to 25 years ago.”

He said as new laws sweep across the states, public opinion of the issue changes.

“When you have it happen in enough places, it becomes the new normal,” he said. “Inevitably, the federal government is going to follow along. It’s just the way politics works.”

Represent.Us is about two years old, Silver said, and has 250,000 Facebook likes and a half-million citizen co-sponsors to its model legislation, the “American Anti-Corruption Act.”

The act is designed to be adapted to the different places where it’s proposed, but always has provisions that make campaign contributions transparent and make it illegal for politicians to go directly from representative to lobbyist and to accept donations from the industries they regulate.

“Politicians on the finance committee can’t take money from banks. Politicians on the energy committee can’t take money from oil companies. It’s like saying you can’t bribe the ref, it’s basic,” Silver said.

A version of the act passed in Tallahassee, Fla., in November with bipartisan support by a 2 to 1 margin. Silver said over the next two years, Represent.Us’s scope is going to increase dramatically, as it targets two states and about 12 cities.

He said the state-level laws, to be proposed in Washington and one other state, will include publicly funded elections for state office and federal delegation.

“We’ll start to populate the U.S. Congress with federal politicians who have been elected with citizen-funded systems,” Silver said. “Those politicians – you can be sure – are going to be a whole lot more friendly toward the idea of these kind of reforms, because they’re seeing them work in their home state.”

To the top

Another one of Lessig’s projects, Mayday PAC, branded as the “crowd-funded SuperPAC to end all SuperPACS,” backs candidates, including Rubens, committed to reform. Mayday PAC helped Rubens increase his voter support by 14.5 percent and his familiarity to voters by 22 percent in what Lessig said was about three weeks before the primary, which Rubens lost. Technologists working for Lessig are also developing tools to educate voters about politicians’ stances on campaign finance issues and their whereabouts in New Hampshire campaign events.

Lessig said efforts from all different angles help the cause, but he feels there’s not enough time to build from the bottom up. President Obama talked about campaign finance reform in 2008, Lessig said, but when he took office, he quickly realized it would be impossible to get anything done because he didn’t have support in Congress. Since then, the issue of corruption has faded away at the presidential level and didn’t feature in either candidate’s 2012 campaign – despite its ranking that year as Gallup’s No. 2 most important issue for the president to address. So Lessig intends to bring the issue back to prominence, starting in New Hampshire, at both the congressional and presidential levels.

“In Congress, it’s about getting enough supporters of fundamental reform that it makes it plausible,” Lessig said. “At the presidential level, it’s about what we’re doing here, which is to create a demand in a critical state like New Hampshire for candidates to address an issue that has legs that can spread across the country.”

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or or on Twitter @NickBReid.)


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