Left aims to gain ground on super-PACs

Alarmed by the rise of super-PACs, major allies of the Democratic Party are rallying behind new legislation that would provide federal matching funds for small-dollar donations.

Groups like Sierra Club, Communications Workers of America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee are endorsing legislation from Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) that would offer tax credits to campaign donors as well as matching funds to candidates who forgo traditional PAC contributions.

ADVERTISEMENT
Other major liberal groups are expected to line up behind the bill as well.

“We are sick and tired of seeing money from a small section of multimillionaire donors drown out our voice across the board,” said Courtney Hight, director of the democracy program at the Sierra Club, told The Hill. “Issue-based groups that have not traditionally gotten into the fight over campaign finance are now seeing the threat to our democracy.”

The bill, which Sarbanes will introduce Wednesday, aims to even the playing field for small donors who are being outgunned in the new era of unlimited political spending created by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Unions, environmental organizations and other liberal-leaning groups say they hope to empower their members by having their small contributions swell candidates' coffers. 

Sarbanes’s office said he expected to have roughly 100 co-sponsors of the Government by the People Act by the time of its introduction on Wednesday. A number of supportive groups, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are expected to join him at a press conference unveiling the bill.

“It is designed to make the voice of the small or grassroots donor as powerful as the large donor,” Sarbanes said.

One part of the legislation would give small donors a $25 refundable tax credit for their contribution to a candidate’s campaign.

In addition, candidates would be able to secure funds to match their small donors under the bill if they agreed to limits on their fundraising.

For example, a candidate who does not accept PAC money could match small-dollar donations of $150 or less at a rate of $6 to $1. Those candidates who only depend on small donors would see those contributions matched at a rate of $9 to $1 — so a $50 campaign contribution could become $500 instead.

Further, candidates that raise $50,000 in small-dollar contributions 60 days before the general election could be given more resources to combat late campaign attacks under the act.

Sarbanes said he believes boosting small donors will change Congress since lawmakers would be less dependent on high-priced fundraisers.

“I think you will see a change in candidate behavior, as candidates turn in the direction they would love to turn, which is back towards their constituents, back towards everyday citizens, spend their time doing that rather than sort of ‘call time’ to high donors and PACs,” Sarbanes said.

Liberal groups said the bill would force lawmakers to pay more attention to voters.

“It's all about changing incentives for politicians. Instead of sucking up to big-money donors, they will be sucking up to everyday people. That's the bottom line,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Politicians are much more likely to act against foreclosures and big polluters and on issues like the minimum wage if they are talking to normal people.”

Democrats are also pushing for action in the Senate to change campaign finance rules.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) plans to re-introduce his Fair Elections Now Act soon, which sets up a public financing system for campaigns and emphasizes small donors, according to his office.

Supporters of campaign finance reform are watching the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule soon on the campaign finance case McCutcheon vs. FEC. That decision could remove the aggregate limit on how much a donor could contribute each election cycle, which would allow rich donors to contribute to as many members of Congress as they choose.

“We're waiting now for the McCutcheon decision, which will move the process even more in favor of the wealthiest and corporate interests by removing restrictions on aggregation,” said Candice Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America. “The Sarbanes bill is one way we can start to provide for public financing of elections, and make sure that the voices of smaller donors also count.” 

Sarbanes’s bill comes from the work of a House Democrats’ taskforce set up by Pelosi that has been drafting legislation to strengthen public financing and small donors.

But the legislation will have a tough road in Congress, as the Republican-controlled House is unlikely to have a vote on Sarbanes’s bill.

Other efforts to change campaign finance laws, such as the Disclose Act, have failed to move in the Senate. In addition, business groups have opposed efforts to shed more light on political spending and beat back an effort at the Securities and Exchange Commission to have public companies disclose their political contributions.

Some liberal groups were wary of the Disclose Act in the past, but are now pushing harder for new limits on money in politics.

“We are in competition with the Koch brothers, the fossil fuel industry and the Chamber of Commerce, who are funneling money into various campaigns. What we spend is a drop in the bucket compared to them,” said Hight with Sierra Club, whose super-PAC spent almost $1.2 million on independent expenditures for the 2012 election cycle.

“I think we need a more organized group of people who are pushing back on the big money, and that is why we are part of this alliance in support of the bill.”