Making Small Donors Matter

The kind of argument Stan Greenberg raises for cracking down on the corrupt influence of money in politics generally runs into two dismissive arguments. The first, which he addresses in his own article for the Washington Monthly by offering strongly contrary data, is that real voters don’t care about such “process” issues. But the second, at least with respect to campaign contributions, is that there’s nothing you can really do about it given the “money talks” First Amendment jurisprudence of recent Supreme Court majorities.

You can, as Hillary Clinton recently did, promise to pursue a constitutional amendment to overturn the SCOTUS precedents, and say if often and emphatically enough to make the promise credible. But that is an arduous process, and even if an amendment gets through Congress it doesn’t take many small buyable state legislatures to block ratification.

So it’s important to find some other angle, which for progressives is often some form of public financing linked to voluntary limits on contributions and/or expenditures; indeed, a number of states have moved in that direction. And now there’s one promising federal model, being offered by U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland. WaMo interviewed him in the new issue of the Washington Monthly about the proposal and its motivation, and the interview is well worth a full read.

Here are some excerpts:

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 $100, will be matched six to one with public funds. That turns a $150 donor into a $1,050 donor when you add the six-to-one match. It means the $50 donor is worth $350 to the 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.

So Sarbanes is linking the idea of public-financing-with-contribution-limits to an impetus to small donor contributions, which are already on the rise thanks to internet-enabled methods of soliciting and making them.

But here, of course, is the rub:

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.

If, however, Democrats begin to demonstrate that there is public support for doing something about the corrupting effect of money in politics, that could begin to change, at least enough that we can seriously envision it happening, and break down the wall of cynicism in the chattering classes on this entire subject.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.