To end Washington corruption, officeholders and candidates must have a new way to finance their campaigns
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We need to be very clear-eyed about this.

If federal officeholders and candidates are not provided with an alternative way to finance their campaigns, influence-money corruption in Washington will not stop – it will grow far worse.

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H.R. 1, the comprehensive democracy reform legislation introduced by Rep. John SarbanesJohn Peter Spyros Sarbanes2020 Democrats vow to get tough on lobbyists Mueller remarks put renewed focus on election security bills Pelosi: Trump 'is engaged in a cover-up' MORE (D-Md.) and sponsored by 227 House Democrats will soon be on the House floor. House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiWhy President Trump needs to speak out on Hong Kong Anti-Trump vets join Steyer group in pressing Democrats to impeach Trump Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid MORE (D-Calif.), is leading this historic effort to address fundamental campaign finance, voting rights, redistricting and government ethics problems.

H.R. 1 addresses the essential need for an alternative financing system by creating a small donor, public matching funds system for presidential and congressional candidates to use on a voluntary basis. This system would:

  • Allow candidates to run for office without being dependent on or obligated to big money funders;
  • Empower ordinary Americans by making their small contributions much more important to candidates;
  • Dramatically reduce the power and influence of big money funders by freeing candidates to run competitive races for office without any need for their financial support; and
  • Create opportunities for new candidates to enter the political process and run competitive races;

The Supreme Court in Buckley v Valeo made clear that a small donor, public matching funds system is constitutional. In upholding the presidential public financing system created following the Watergate scandals, the Court found that “Congress was legislating for the ‘general welfare.’”

The Supreme Court held that “Rather than abridging, restricting, or censoring speech, it represents an effort to use public money to facilitate and enlarge public discussion and participation in the electoral process.”

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An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last fall found that 77 percent of registered voters said “reducing the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” is “the most important or a very important issue facing the country.”

Washington corruption today stems from the Supreme Court decision in Citizen United that opened the floodgates to allow massive amounts of unlimited, influence-seeking contributions back into federal elections. These are the same kind of contributions that led to the Watergate campaign finance scandals of the 1970s and the unlimited “soft money” contribution scandals of the 1990s.

In the last four elections, Super PACs that sprang up in the wake of Citizens United raised $4.86 billion in unlimited contributions to spend in federal elections. The top 10 Super PAC individual donors alone contributed more than $1 billion during this period, an average of $100 million per donor.

Here is just one example of how the Supreme Court’s influence-money system works.

Sheldon Adelson and his spouse gave $122 million to Super PACs to support Republican candidates in the 2018 congressional elections. (They have given a total of $297 million in the last four elections to Super PACs to support Republican candidates – making them the top Super PAC donors during this period.)

Multi-billionaire casino owner Adelson is adamantly opposed to online gambling. Earlier this month, Trump’s Justice Department reversed a department opinion adopted during the Obama administration that permitted online gambling. The new Justice Department position reportedly closely followed the legal arguments made by Adelson’s lobbyists.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, “In addition to his advocacy to curb online gambling, Adelson spent tens of millions in the 2016 election backing President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE and has emerged as one of the most powerful and influential donors in GOP politics.”

These circumstances, at a minimum, create the appearance of huge campaign contributions having a corrupting influence on government decisions.

Before his recent retirement, conservative Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner, seen by many as the country’s most influential judge not on the Supreme Court, described in stark terms the   impact of the Citizens United decision. Judge Posner said, “Our political system is pervasively corrupt due to our Supreme Court taking away campaign contribution restrictions on the basis of the First Amendment.

As long as Citizens United remains the law of the land, we cannot stop unlimited contributions from flowing into federal elections through Super PACs and nonprofit groups. 

What we can do, however, is provide federal candidates with an alternative way to finance their campaigns in order to run for office free from dependency on corrupting contributions and the policy demands that follow them. This system is provided in H.R. 1.

This will be a tough battle that will take time. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump faces crucial decisions on economy, guns Are Democrats turning Trump-like? House Democrat calls for gun control: Cities can ban plastic straws but 'we can't ban assault weapons?' MORE (R-Ky.), who never met a campaign finance law he supported, will do everything he can to obstruct and block the legislation.

But McConnell has been beaten before on campaign finance reform. The McCain-Feingold ban on unlimited “soft money” party contributions passed in the Senate by a vote of 60 to 40 over his unyielding opposition and became law in 2002. The McCain-Feingold law was enacted with a Republican president, a Republican-controlled House and a Senate controlled by Democrats by one vote.

Ending Washington influence-money corruption requires enacting the alternative campaign finance system created by H.R. 1. If we are going to protect the integrity of our democracy, this must be done.  

Fred Wertheimer is president of Democracy 21.