The Monthly Interview: John Sarbanes

A conversation with Representative John Sarbanes, on a new campaign finance idea to get lawmakers more focused on voters than big-money contributors.

Advocates of campaign finance reform have been understandably glum since Citizens United and other Supreme Court decisions all but gutted previous hard-fought-for strictures on big money in campaigns. But a new piece of legislation by Representative John Sarbanes, Democrat from Maryland, crafted for the post-Citizens environment, has picked up moods within the political reform community. Sarbanes recently sat down with Washington Monthly editor in chief Paul Glastris to talk about his Government By the People Act. Here is an edited version of that interview.

WM: What does your legislation aim to do?
JS: The bill is designed to shift the attention of candidates away from big money and toward everyday citizens and small donors. In order to do that, you have to be able to generate enough funding from small donors that it’s actually worthwhile for a candidate to turn away from PACs, big-money donors, and special interests.

WM: How would your bill do that?
JS: Number one: A small donor gets a tax credit for the contribution they make to a federal candidate, to the tune of up to $25 in each of the two years of an election cycle. It’s a 50 percent tax-refundable credit. So you give $10, you get $5 back from the IRS. You give $20, you get $10 back. You give up to $50, you get $25 back in each of the two years of the cycle.
The idea here is that if we’re living in a world where the Supreme Court has declared that money is speech, how do people of modest means have speech? How do we make it more possible for them to get into the funding side of the equation and to begin to get the attention of the candidate?
Number two: If that contribution goes to a candidate who has chosen to give up traditional PACs and to put a $1,000 cap on their highest donations, then every contribution that comes in from the small donors, up to $150, will be matched six to one. That means the $50 donor is worth $350 to a candidate. If that person can assemble thirty people at a house party, and they each give $50, using a $25 tax credit, that’s $1,500 raised, with another $9,000 in matching funds. The candidate could raise $10,500 dollars by going to a house party with real people in their district, instead of needing to go to a K Street fund-raiser. This is the game changer.
Imagine that Verizon commercial where the guy is saying, “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” Right now the small donor cannot be heard by the candidate. The signal is not strong enough. In fact, if you looked at a map of the United States, you would see coverage coming out of the Manhattans of the world and the Marin Counties of the world, but there would be whole parts of the country that would be completely dark, which is where a lot of America lives but can’t be heard. Give them a tax credit, bring a six-to-one match of public dollars in behind it, and now when they call the candidate and say, “Can you hear me?” the candidate says, “Not only can I hear you, stay where you are and I’ll be there in the next twenty minutes.”

WM: Why this bill rather than, say, a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United?
JS: Citizens United is still about refereeing the conduct of big-money players. Overturning it would do nothing to bring everyday citizens out of the bleachers and into the ring and say they have a role to play there. That’s the difference, and that’s what I think goes directly to meeting the cynicism and sense of frustration that people have, in addition to not getting tangled up in the First Amendment issues, which, right now, is sort of a dead-end proposition.

WM: So would your bill limit campaign contributions?
JS: It’s not about limiting. It’s not about limiting speech. It’s about adding speech for people who don’t have it. The limiting, if it’s done, is done voluntarily by a candidate in order to qualify for the public funding option, but nothing is being imposed on anybody. A candidate can choose to raise money in the current system. We give them an option of someplace else to turn.

WM: Is there a cap on the money that’s available to candidates from the six-to-one match?
JS: Yes. It’s indexed to the top ten winning elections from the last cycle. So unlike the presidential system, which was a static cap, this one won’t become irrelevant in the out years.
But there’s no overall expenditure cap for the candidate. You can still continue to raise private dollars as long as you stay under the $1,000-per-donor limit. In that respect it’s different from a lot of the state and local analogs to this bill, which limit your expenditures if you get public financing. We realize that if we imposed that kind of regime on members of Congress, none of them would participate, because if you have the prospect of outside money coming at you, you can’t tie your hands with an expenditure cap.

WM: How did you come to have this idea?
JS: When I first came to Congress in ’06 I hadn’t even been sworn in yet and already I had these industry people wanting to throw fund-raisers and all the rest of it. And I just was like, you know, I don’t want to go down this road yet. I stepped back and, in effect, put on the night-vision goggles that allow you to start seeing the money everywhere. Then I was sort of on a path to see if I could innovate in my own campaigns to do things differently.

WM: What did you do?
JS: About five years ago I just decided I wasn’t going to take PAC money from any source—labor, corporate, whatever. Which is pretty unusual to do. I’m not righteous about it because I know I’ve got a lot of colleagues who can’t take a pledge like that or they’d be out on the street the next day.
But I thought if I have a little bit of flexibility I should at least try.
Secondly, two cycles ago I decided I needed to force myself to be more proactive with the small-donor universe. So I went to higher donors and raised what I called a challenge fund of about a half a million dollars. I pledged that I wouldn’t access any of those dollars until I had recruited a thousand new small donors—people who gave $100 or less. So then I had all the incentive in the world to go try and build out that universe. We met that goal on June 30, 2011, and unlocked the challenge fund and got people kind of excited around the prospect of doing that.
In this past campaign, I thought, well, let me take a similar concept but go more granular. So I selected a hundred precincts. In each one I set up a matching system where I asked high donors to be the match for that precinct to incentivize me to go find people who lived in that specific area to get small donations.

WM: Did you explain to the people whose doors you were knocking on what you were doing?
JS: Yes, I explained it to them. Then we set about calling people, knocking on doors, reaching out online, etcetera. We discovered that there were certain precincts where it was easy to hit the $1,000 target that we had set. We could collect twenty $50 donations and we were done. In other communities, a $5 donation was a huge lift because they just didn’t have the same capacity. In fact, I remember knocking on doors in a relatively low-income part of Anne Arundel County and after about ten conversations, I was like, this is going to be impossible here. But it made me realize how valuable the tax-credit piece of this thing is. Even beyond that. Our bill calls for a demonstration project around giving people a $50 voucher to then go use for a candidate.
Anyway, by the time I got to election day, we had long since realized we weren’t going to reach my goal of getting a hundred precincts each hitting $1,000 in small donations. But at the very least I wanted to finish the experiment at eight that night by having gotten at least one small donation of $5 or more from every precinct of 100, and we were seven precincts short. So, between six and eight that evening, I’m sure for the first time in the history of this country among the members of Congress, I was sitting in a shopping center parking lot in Glen Burnie, Maryland, cold-calling constituents in these seven precincts and asking if they’d be willing to make a $5 contribution.
One woman, I remember, didn’t even believe it was me. She thought it was a recording and then she was convinced I was just a volunteer. I finally persuaded her, no, this is your congressman calling. And when she was convinced, she was very happy and sort of hopeful and amazed by the whole thing. I said, I’m calling you from the future. I’m calling you from a time and a place when this is what candidates all across America will do if we have a different kind of system. The adrenaline rush I got after that woman sent me a $5 donation online that night was way bigger than the rush I’d ever gotten from getting off the phone with a mega-donor, because you’re marrying up the funding side with a sort of old-fashioned grassroots organizing, which is really the way it ought to be.

WM: How many Democratic sponsors and how many
Republicans do you have for your bill?
JS: We have 145, one of whom is a Republican—Walter Jones from North Carolina.

WM: Have you had discussions with other Republicans?
JS: We’re starting to. But that caucus frankly has gotten much more ideological in recent years. The Wayne Gilchrests and the Mike Castles of the world, who were on past efforts of this kind and certainly I think would’ve been helpful with this, they’re no longer in the mix. Now, I think that as we educate members on the Republican side—particularly to the fact that we’re not playing in the sandbox of the First Amendment and trying to put limits on speech—they’ll be more receptive. And as they also listen more closely to their own constituents, in the way Dave Brat did to the people in Virginia when he beat Eric Cantor by surprise, they’ll start, if not to sign on as cosponsors of our particular bill at least to begin to adopt the same narrative. So I think we can continue to build on this as we go.

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