We caught up with Congressman John Sarbanes (D-03) to learn about his Government by the People Act, congressional telemarketing call centers, and why he thinks Bernie Sanders’s campaign gives him hope that the U.S. is ready for campaign finance reform. Introduced in 2014 on Citizen United’s fifth anniversary, the Government by the People Act aims to make everyday Americans just as powerful as wealthy campaign donors.
Imagine if this task was added to your job description: Every two years you need to raise over $1 million in donations to get, and then keep your job.
It’s part of your Congressman’s job description.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the average candidate amassed about $1 million in his or her treasure chest in 2016 to make a bid for Congress. Sourced from either personal fortunes, political action committees, or citizens, the challenge that most candidates face is that 99 percent of Americans don’t contribute to political campaigns.
On average, members of Congress spend between 30 to 70 percent of their working hours with their hat-in-hand searching for a couple of hundred rich individuals to write an average check of $1,400. By law, individuals can contribute up to $2,700 to a candidate per election.
Small donors don’t factor in today’s congressional campaign treasure chests; about 15 percent of a congressional candidate’s finances come from small donors (under $200).
How did we get to elected officials fundraising up to 30 hours a week?
A dislike for campaign fundraising is one of the few issues on which both parties agree. This rare congressional kumbaya is due to the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision.
Citizens United afforded nonprofit organizations the ability to make unlimited independent political donations. The ruling was expanded one year later also to include for-profit businesses and labor unions.
Now that businesses, unions, and nonprofits can write unlimited campaign checks in the name of free speech, we have Super Political Action Committees (Super PACs). Traditional PACs began in the 1940s and represent businesses (Exxon Mobil) or causes (National Rifle Association). PACs can donate up to $5,000 to a candidate, and up to $30,000 to a national political party. Super PACs can’t donate directly to candidates or political parties, but they legally can break the bank on issue-related marketing.
PAC issue-related spending has flooded the media market drowning out many candidates’ own messaging. To counter this outside spending, candidates must invest additional time fundraising.
The skinny on the Government by the People Act
To offset the influence of big money in politics and return power to everyday people, Rep. John Sarbanes authored and introduced the Government By the People Act in 2014. The bill would provide citizens — and the candidates they support — with the tools they need to run competitive campaigns without money from wealthy donors or special interests.
If you’ve ever wondered how the candidates spend those millions of campaign dollars, Representative Sarbanes explains, “Campaign spending varies considerably, and depends on the type of political race (presidential, senate, congressional, state or local contest). It also varies by the location and competitiveness of each race. Usually, campaigns spend resources on staff salaries, campaign materials, research, advertisements (radio, television, digital, direct mail) and volunteer support to help with all of the grassroots work that goes into campaigning – like knocking on doors and organizing volunteers.”
The Government by the People Act would provide voters with a $25 refundable tax credit when they make a small donation to a congressional candidate of their choice. The donation amplifies with a citizen-funded matching program; each dollar donated would be matched with a six dollar citizen-funded match (up to $150 donation).
The Government by the People Act’s three goals.
A congressional candidate could only participate in this new, small-donor-based system if he or she agrees to contribution limits. This includes giving up all PAC money and lowering the amount of money taken from individual donors.
“By making everyday Americans just as powerful as wealthy donors, the Government By the People Act would encourage Congress to act in the people’s interest, and not on behalf of special interests,” Sarbanes adds.
John Oliver’s $hameocracy
You may have heard about the Government by the People Act on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The only bright star mentioned in Oliver’s 21-minute shredding of congressional fundraising was Sarbanes’s campaign finance reform bill.
Sarbanes has a different take on Oliver’s assertion that the Government by The People Act has a “zero chance of going anywhere.” Despite the two-year lag, he remains optimistic.
“I’m glad to see more attention brought to congressional fundraising. Too often, the press and political pundits focus only on big money in the presidential sweepstakes and ignore the pernicious effect that big money has on Congress. The segment on “Last Week Tonight,” is fair to point out that in this current Republican-controlled Congress, the odds of passing meaningful reform, like the Government By the People Act, are slim. However, I am hopeful for the prospects of this legislation,” he says.
Today, the Government by the People Act is sponsored by 160 Democrats and one Republican.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Sanders has raised $207 million. The Atlantic reported that Sanders often asks his audiences the amount of his average contribution, and everyone yells “27 dollars!” Sarbanes thinks the momentum behind Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid is one reason for hope.
“This year’s presidential race shows us; there’s a deep and widespread frustration with big money in politics. The success Senator Sanders has had with small donor funding is a testament to the public’s frustration with our current, big-money-drenched campaign finance system. We just need to make sure that we channel the public’s cynicism in constructive ways – ways that are restorative, and not destructive, to our democracy,” says Sarbanes.
Sweaty congressional call centers
Clearly, less time is spent on real work if fundraising can suck up to 30 to 70 percent of a day. 60 Minutes aired an eye-opening show asking if members of Congress are becoming telemarketers? The segment suggests that U.S. Congressmen and women are sweating in hot call centers upwards of 30 hours per week dialing for donations.
Representative Sarbanes gives an insider’s view: “The demands of fundraising are a big reason why Congress fails to make progress on a whole host of issues that most Americans care about – issues like climate change, paid sick leave, paid family leave, and income inequality, among other issues. Importantly, Members of Congress are tired of the current system, and they want something new. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve seen so much support for the Government By the People Act.”
Are the deep pocket donors winning after all?
With almost $645 million in campaign funding up in flames for the 2016 presidential candidates who dropped out, many are asking if money doesn’t matter anymore in politics.
Congressman Sarbanes thinks this narrative overlooks three issues facing Congress.
“For starters, candidates without access to big money often can’t be heard or self-select and never run at all. This ‘money primary’ has the impact of limiting plenty of good candidates – often of modest means and from diverse backgrounds – from running for office,” Sarbanes says.
The second issue with big money financing politics? “Those same presidential donors are also funding congressional, state and local races around the country, where their candidates are winning. And with the large campaign donations given, these wealthy special interests have significant clout over the policymaking process. During the policymaking process, lawmakers are often influenced by the company they keep. And if they’ve spent a considerable amount of time raising money from wealthy donors, then candidates’ viewpoints will be colored by the perspectives of the moneyed special interests who back them – interests whose support candidates will need to power their reelection campaigns,” Sarbanes adds.
Next step for the Government by the People Act?
“I will continue reaching out to my Democratic and Republican colleagues to keep building support for the bill. I’ll also be traveling around the country to support citizen-funded election systems that are being proposed at the state and local levels. In places like Seattle, Maine, Connecticut, New York City and Arizona – and even in Montgomery County, Maryland – we’re seeing these kinds of systems being put in place. And when more citizen-funded election systems are set up in localities and states around the country, we’ll see even more support for reform at the national level.”
Something needs to change, and soon. Or, you may just find your representative spending hours a day dialing-for-dollars at those discreet telemarketing call centers across the street from the U.S. Capitol, and less time doing the job we elected them to do.