Darrell Berkheimer: Let’s return legislative influence to the voters
October 27, 2017
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During the past few months I have used this space to shine a spotlight on reforms needed in our federal government, giving special attention to the need for term limits and ending gerrymandering.
But I saved perhaps the most important reform needed for this last series article. It's the need to end how "Big Money" corrupts both our legislative and executive branches – through campaign contributions and lobbying.
So I am wondering: Perhaps if candidates did not know who contributed what toward their campaigns, wouldn't they be more inclined to vote their consciences for what is best for our nation?
Campaign contributions have been an on-and-off subject periodically since before the Civil War, with the first issues arising during Andrew Jackson's campaign. During that era, Jackson manipulated his campaign through partisan newspapers; and then banks attempted to influence legislators. But the first laws to limit election contributions were not enacted until the decades after the Civil War.
Today, awareness of "Big Money" political influence peddling appears to be quite high since the Supreme Court's 2010 "Citizens United" ruling. That ruling paved the way for the creation of "dark money" groups and recognizes corporations as having the same legal standing as people. ("Dark Money" is funds given to nonprofit organizations, which can receive unlimited donations to spend on influencing elections, without any requirements to disclose donors.)
That court ruling has been most unpopular, with polls since 2011 showing that 80 percent of Americans are opposed to the ruling. A Bloomberg poll only a year ago reported that 80 percent of Republicans and 83 percent of Democrats opposed the Citizens United ruling on campaign contributions.
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And since 2010, we have watched campaign spending increase by billions of dollars.
That increase in competitive campaign financing has prompted our Congress members to spend huge amounts of time raising money for their next elections — time that should be spent instead on resolving both domestic and foreign issues, enacting measures to meet the needs of our citizens, and pushing through projects to modernize our nation's infrastructure. But instead, Congress members appear much more attentive to actions wanted by their biggest donors.
Nothing underscores more how big money affects our out-of-control Congress than the regulations written to benefit health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. We have seen how legislation was passed to protect the high prices and profits of prescription drugs — pharmaceuticals that are so much cheaper in other countries.
We also see the effects of "Big Money" when programs are cut and regulations are rescinded in order to provide for tax cuts that will mostly benefit the wealthy and big corporations.
More and more it becomes apparent that Congress members are proposing legislation written by the big money lobbyists and pushed by campaign contributors.
The Citizens United ruling provides for the big money contributors to hide how much they are giving to which candidates.
So now we have renewed cries for contribution limits, disclosures, and a constitutional amendment to overturn the effects of Citizens United.
California has moved to lead the nation in disclosure with legislation signed into law only three weeks ago. The law is expected to reveal major campaign contributors. It requires ads for ballot propositions and independent ads for and against candidates to identify the top three contributors. It also prohibits hiding behind organizations with phony names like Citizens for Progress.
The constitutional amendments are being pushed by two different groups. The one is proposing a Democracy for All Amendment. It would give the states and federal governments the power to "regulate and set limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections."
The other group, using the name Move to Amend, wants its proposal to end corporate personhood and specify that money is not speech.
But I question how much any of those actions actually will remove the effect of big money in politics.
After some research into the subject, I believe the only good way to remove big money from politics is through public campaign financing and anonymity of contributors.
The system that has caught my attention is detailed in a 2002 book titled "Voting with Dollars: A new paradigm for campaign finance." It was written by Yale Law School professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres. They advocate a modified public financing system coupled with an anonymous campaign contributions process.
Each voter would be allowed a publicly-financed voucher, called Patriot Dollars, to be assigned to federal political campaigns. And voters could split that amount on their choice for president and candidates for the Senate and House.
Ackerman and Ayers note that a $50 voucher multiplied by the approximately 120 million people who voted in 2004 would provide $6 billion in public financing — approximately one-third more than the $4 billion spent for all federal elections in 2004.
The plan also allows for some additional private donations, but all contributions would be required to be anonymously distributed through the Federal Election Commission.
Ackerman and Ayers contend that if candidates don't know how much came from individual contributors, they're more likely to vote their conscience, and for the overall good of our citizens rather than voting to satisfy big money donors. They say this system would pool voters' money and prompt lawmakers to address issues of importance to a broad spectrum of the public.
In addition, the authors observe that potential donors would lose the corrupting influence that big contributions promote.
Another proposal provides for the government to match the first $250 of every donation, making smaller donations more valuable to a campaign, thus prodding candidates to put more effort into pursuing such donations, enhancing the power of less wealthy individuals.
But I like best the anonymity that can be provided by all contributions being funneled through the Federal Election Commission, regardless of whatever system particulars are selected.
Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. He is the author of five books available through Amazon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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