The $3 million – and possibly more – that Silicon Valley billionaire Larry Ellison has given to a super PAC backing Republican Marco Rubio’s presidential bid is a perfect example of why ordinary Americans need a way to balance out megadonors’ money, Rep. John Sarbanes said Friday.
“It’s about who can get their phone calls answered, who can get the attention of candidates in the first place,” Sarbanes, D-Md., said during an interview in San Francisco. “Obviously the super PAC benefactors are in a position to do that with the presidential candidates.”
But now super PACs also are playing increasingly large roles in Senate and House races too, dragging America toward the day when every federal candidate will need to have “have a sugar daddy in the wings,” he said.
Unless regular voters band together to become sugar daddies themselves.
Sarbanes is the author of H.R. 20, the “Government By the People Act,” which would give every citizen taxpayer a $25 “My Voice Tax Credit” for House campaign contributions, and then augment those small contributions – and give candidates a bigger incentive to seek them – with a six-to-one match from a taxpayer-funded “Freedom From Influence Fund.” The bill also would let candidates to earn additional public matching funds within 60 days of the election so that citizen-funded candidates can combat Super PACs and outside groups.
“Even before Citizens United, we had a problem with direct campaign contributions to candidates having a lot of influence,” Sarbanes said, so pursuing a constitutional amendment to overturn that 2010 Supreme Court decision – a longshot at best – wouldn’t solve the problem. Instead, he said, it’s time to “build a different system that gives everyday people power.”
Some might complain that the answer to the corrosive influence of money in politics shouldn’t be putting more even money into politics. But Sarbanes said “the problem is not so much the amount of money – the problem is the source of the money,” coming from a tiny percentage of the mega-rich and amplifying only their interests.
Someone is going to own the levers of government – “either it’s going to be the big money crowd… or it’s going to be the public,” he said. “And if the public wants to own the government, there’s going to be a cost associated that, but it’s a pretty modest investment.”
This could help reverse the long downward trend in voter turnout, too, he said. “A lot of rational voters, either consciously or subconsciously, are saying to themselves, ‘Why bother voting if the guy I elect is going to work for someone else’” with deeper pockets, Sarbanes said. Fighting for access to the ballot box is important, but it’s useless if that ballot box is then hijacked on its way to Washington by moneyed special interests. “There’s a right to vote, and then there’s a right to have your vote mean something.”
Disclosure requirements, non-coordination rules and other campaign finance regulations “are about putting a referee on the field, to blow the whistle when someone is going out of bounds. It doesn’t solve the problems of most Americans still sitting up there in the bleachers,” he said. “The disaffected, disillusioned, frankly desperately cynical voters who’ve packed their things and fled the town square – this is a way to bring them back.”
Sarbanes’ bill has 155 co-sponsors, including the Bay Area’s entire House delegation but one Republican, Walter Jones, R-N.C. Sarbanes acknowledges he’s playing a long game and doesn’t expect the bill to pass any time soon, but he said he’s hitting themes that should appeal to voters across the political spectrum. After all, he said, voters on the far left and Tea Partiers alike talk about wanting to take their country back from the fat-cat special interests.
“I do see increasing use of the same lexicon, the same narrative I’m talking about here… and if they’re speaking this language, then we’re winning,” he said.