Commentary: A big step to eliminate the corrupting influence of money in politics

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., smiles as she stands between Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, left, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as Democrats rally outside the Capitol ahead of passage of H.R. 1, "The For the People Act," a bill which aims to expand voting rights and strengthen ethics rules, in Washington, Friday, March 8, 2019. The House passed a resolution to condemn anti-Semitism and other bigotry on Thursday following debate over Omar's recent comments suggesting House supporters of Israel have dual allegiances. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Our democracy is broken. The average American’s voice is muffled – in many cases, silenced. The voices of ordinary Americans cannot be heard above the overpowering voices of the wealthy. Over the past few decades, our system turned into a plutocracy, or rule of the wealthy, and the American people are growing frustrated with a status quo that leaves them voiceless, powerless, and disadvantaged.

Things weren’t always this bad. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission effectively boxed millions of Americans out of the political process by declaring that monetary expenditures are protected as free speech. In doing so, the court elevated the role of the wealthy in how, and by whom, our country is governed, making “one person, one vote” far from our current reality. Fortunately, the American people are catching on.

Two-thirds of Americans recognize that large donors have much greater political influence than the average voter, suggesting that most voters understand how political spending warps our democratic system. In response, many Democratic 2020 hopefuls are refusing to accept super PAC money, proving that some candidates are confronting the problem and avoiding monied special interests. Despite powerful political spending, public opinion still influences those seeking elected office. But a system allowing political candidates and elected officials to opt in or out of eschewing high-dollar donations means bad actors still benefit from our corrupt campaign finance laws. That’s why we need actual reform on the books.

This Congressional session, House Democrats introduced HR 1, the For The People Act, to address money in politics in a number of innovative and necessary ways. Reforms include mandated disclosure of corporate political spending, public databases of political ad disclosure requests, and most importantly instituting a new matching-fund program for House candidates who agree to accept only small-dollar donations, revamping the public financing system for presidential candidates. (A matching-fund program for Senate candidates would have to originate in that chamber.)

For small donations (under $200) to House candidates, the federal government would match the donation 6:1 (e.g., you give $20 to Candidate A, the federal government gives $120 to Candidate A), making small contributions go further, thereby reducing reliance on wealthy donors.

These changes are critical steps towards returning voting power to citizens and making running for elected office a realistic possibility for ordinary Americans. Historically, and especially in recent years, the political field has been populated with wealthy Americans who can afford to be candidates, and bereft of average Americans committed to public service. Publicly financed elections encourage a diverse crop of candidates from a wide array of backgrounds.

These candidates’ differences will inform their positions, leading to a system where our elected officials look and think more like their constituents. For evidence of those benefits, one need look no further than current House Democrats, many of whom funded their campaigns without super PACs or corporate donations. More nurses, teachers, women and minorities in office than ever before means policy will be crafted with wider perspectives — not just special interests — in mind.

Ultimately, we must create a system where no people or organizations have disproportionate influence in our elections because of the size of their bank accounts. Elected officials shouldn’t be able to insulate themselves from their constituents’ needs and demands by virtue of the backing of wealthy benefactors or corporate interests. With HR 1, the For The People Act, America can realize these values and return the power where it belongs: in the hands of the people.

Jonathan M. Ruga and Scott F. Young are members of the Patriotic Millionaires, a nonprofit group which focuses on promoting public policy solutions that encourage political equality, guarantee a sustaining wage for working Americans and ensure that wealthy individuals and corporations pay their fair share of taxes. They are both the co-founders and executive management of Sentry Financial Corporation, Salt Lake City.

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