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The Chicago Tribune published an op ed I wrote with Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig on the influence of big money in politics. It's time for Congress to pass legislation that will empower ordinary Americans and give them a voice in our federal elections.
Chicago Tribune: Super PACs — The story the election didn't tell
By John Sarbanes and Lawrence Lessig
February 15, 2013
In the wake of the recent election, a narrative is emerging about the influence of super PACs and other outside money groups. According to this frame, because Gov. Mitt Romney and many Republican congressional candidates supported by super PACs lost, Americans can stop worrying about money in our politics.
Not so fast. Such a view — particularly with congressional campaigns — ignores the most damaging aspects of the big-money phenomenon. The real story goes beyond Election Day and is much more destructive than you know.
For starters, consider the pressure the modern congressional campaign puts on candidates to raise huge sums of money. Even before the super PAC, members of Congress were committing an incredible amount of time — anywhere from 30 to 70 percent — to fundraising. Now with the threat of super PAC spending — deployed quickly and without warning — members are forced to increase their fundraising and do so even earlier in the campaign cycle. The casualty: less time to focus on real policymaking — reading the material, weighing the arguments, drafting legislation — and less time to build relationships with colleagues that create trust and the opportunity to broker meaningful compromise. A Congress addicted to fundraising is a gridlocked and dysfunctional Congress.
It gets worse. The rising cost of campaigns also makes candidates more dependent on deep-pocketed funding sources. Those sources include the standard lineup of political action committees as well as a set of high-end individual donors that represent the tiniest slice of America. For a candidate targeted by outside spending, that means even victory can threaten the independence that voters have a right to expect.
The collective impact on the institution of Congress is even more troubling. The torrent of outside money only increases the fear factor for members of Congress, which is yet another invitation for moneyed, special interests to step up with the resources that besieged candidates desperately need to fight back. Little wonder then that, when it comes time to make public policy, the institution often leans toward special interests and away from the public interest.
This is how members of Congress experience super PACs. But what about the average citizen? That's where the worst effects are being felt. Surveys show most Americans feel helpless knowing that their voices cannot compete with the megaphone wielded by big-money players. Seventy-five percent of Americans are convinced that "campaign money buys results in Congress," feeding an already deep national cynicism about government and what it can do for the people.
That's why it is critical to pursue reform that will empower ordinary Americans to take back their government. We envision a refundable tax credit or voucher for grass-roots donations to congressional campaigns. If the supported candidate commits to grass-roots fundraising by swearing off PAC contributions and building a broad network of grass-roots donors, then the donation should be multiplied through a matching fund. This combination of incentives — for small-dollar donors and candidates — will lead to broad grass-roots participation in the funding of campaigns and provide a bridge to lawmakers, so they can move away from dependency on the special interests and toward dependency on the people.
In races where candidates' voices are being overwhelmed by outside spending, it also makes sense to provide additional resources so they can compete. That doesn't have to be equal funding; the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down proposals to "level the playing field." But it can be enough to keep the voice of the grass roots in the mix. One lesson we can take from the 2012 election is that a real candidate can prevail against a super PAC without matching every dollar that is spent.
We need to build a new system of citizen-owned, grass-roots funded campaigns. That will free lawmakers from dependency on the special interests and make them, in the words of James Madison, "dependent upon the people alone."
U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., authored the Grassroots Democracy Act, which would create a new paradigm of citizen-owned elections.
Lawrence Lessig, author of "Republic, Lost," is the director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University and a Harvard law professor.
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