Taking Back Our Democracy – The Role of Money in American Politics: Part 2

My previous article attempted to highlight the extent to which money and elite groups within American society are able to exert control over the legislative process. It showed how this has impacted the direction of U.S. politics to such an extent that there exists a significant gap between the interests of the American public and the legislation that is actually pushed for and passed. This article will focus on the possible avenues towards a solution to this problem.

The answer itself is fairly straightforward. If the problem is over-dependence by legislators on large amounts of money originating from a select number of groups and individuals, then the solution should be to broaden this base of income and capital, so it better reflects the people whom they represent. Simple. However, the path by which we arrive at this solution is not so clear and there are several answers for how to do it.

One obvious solution to this problem is drafting and passing legislation through Congress that limits campaign contributions to individuals among other prescriptions. Groups like American Promise, Common Cause, and Democracy for America aim to elect a Congress with sufficient legislators that support ending the role of big-money in the electoral process. They support candidates across America that only accept small donations and some groups will even match donations to candidates. This new majority in Congress could either draft and ratify an amendment to the constitution or, by default, approve Supreme Court nominations that support overturning Citizens United, a Supreme Court decision that ruled as unconstitutional restrictions on independent expenditures by organisations provided they were not formally linked with political campaigns.

Noble as it may be, this grassroots movement will take years, if not decades to achieve results, and the legislators that support this cause will inevitably be facing a concerted effort to maintain the status quo. Groups like these do support worthy causes in realigning democracy back to the American people, but they face an uphill battle and their efforts are inefficient. They depend on a supermajority of the American population to stay focused on their cause and vigilant in their political activism over a significant period of time. The reality is that people vote based on many issues that are important to them and although some will vote based on this issue, many will prioritize other issues. And while these efforts could work eventually, each new electoral cycle provides organisations and elite groups with the opportunity to achieve their own legislative priorities and to build momentum. The recent federal tax cuts in December 2017 is a prime example of this.

Legislators that support this cause will inevitably be facing a concerted effort to maintain the status quo.

Another solution that has been proposed by groups like Wolf Pac and has recently gained traction is a movement to call for a “constitutional convention” or an article 5 convention to amend the U.S. Constitution. All of this talk about amending the constitution would seem, to some, as radical, but I would highlight the fact that most of our rights as citizens have been given to us through the 27 amendments that have already been ratified. On average, that is about 1 amendment every decade since American independence.

Proposing an amendment to the Constitution requires either a 2/3 vote in both the U.S. House and Senate, or by a convention of states called by 2/3 of the state individual legislatures. The authors of the Constitution were smart enough to anticipate that the federal government might enter periods of dysfunction and so this failsafe was added.

In this scenario, each individual state, over time, would ‘call’ for this convention to be had in a specific location outside of the capitol, at a specific time, and to discuss and develop a proposal to present to Congress. The ratification of such an amendment must then be approved by ¾ of either the legislatures of the states or by ratifying conventions within ¾ of the states.

Now how would legislation or an amendment succeed in rebalancing the system whether through an Article 5 convention or through a popular surge? The fact remains that democratic elections are a battle of ideas and in order to win, the candidate must project their ideas to the greatest number of people. And this inevitably costs money, no matter how you look at it. Campaigns not only pay for advertisements but they also need advisors, managers, web designers, fundraisers, canvassers, and the list goes on.

One suggestion proposed a few years ago called the “Government by the People Act of 2015” would see the government match small individual donations at a six-to-one ratio, as well as providing for a refundable tax credit to encourage political donations. By providing a refundable tax credit, people can donate to a campaign and receive a refund when they file their taxes. In fact, most proposals and discussions follow solutions of this kind. The candidate would raise money from individuals, and then the government would chip in and match the funding to the candidate.

Democratic elections are a battle of ideas and in order to win, the candidate must project their ideas to the greatest number of people.

The Fair Elections Now Act would allow candidates to raise an unlimited amount of funding, but with a cap on individual contributions. This would free up legislators from spending time phoning PACs and groups in order to fundraise and instead they would have to rely on a more level playing field of donors.

Another more progressive proposal is to give people vouchers that can then be used as political contributions. This way, individuals would not have to spend any of their personal money thus ensuring the most amount of political contributions. This will effectively turn every voter into a donor. In fact, last year, Seattle became the first U.S. city to pass a law of this kind. The city plans to pay for the 3 million in costs by slightly raising property taxes. Voters can then sign the vouchers and send them in to candidates of their choice.

These examples of potential solutions reveal the range of different options that are open to the federal government. If any one of these were to pass into law, they would effectively change the entire dynamic of American politics. Instead of law makers being forced into a system where they are meeting the requirements of super PACs and large organizations, they would be free to listen and represent the people that actually vote them into office. And if they failed in this representation, then they would have a very difficult time raising enough money for their next campaign. If they fail to raise enough money, then their ability to project their message will be stunted, drowned out by more popular platforms. Exactly how a democracy is supposed to work.

If we change the rules of the game then we can ensure that representatives require a truly popular message in order… to get into office

In other words, the political system that we have today, allows for occasionally unpopular representatives (granted sometimes they can have a truly popular message) to artificially project their voice and their ideas because they can receive financing regardless of whether they have a broad appeal among the American public. And by projecting their ideas louder and with greater financial backing than other, possibly more popular ideas, they can effectively mute opposition and increase their chances of winning election. Thus, if we change the rules of the game then we can ensure that representatives require a truly popular message in order to have access to the money that they require to campaign and subsequently get into office. By amending the constitution or drafting this sort of legislation, the American people would be taking back their democracy.