Congress has been broken by the special interests – here’s how we fix it

Congress has been broken by the special interests – here’s how we fix it
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Plenty of ink and pixels have been spent on how the GOP tax bill was a $1.5 trillion giveaway to corporations and the very wealthiest among us. So, too, on the gaffes by members of Congress who openly acknowledged what everybody knew: campaign donors ordered them to pass the bill, or else the donors would shut their wallets.

In a representative democracy, legislation as unpopular as the tax bill should, in most cases, fail. Less than one quarter of Americans told a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that the bill was a “good idea.” Public support was tanking just as Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.) and Senate Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Trump administration releases PPP loan data | Congress gears up for battle over expiring unemployment benefits | McConnell opens door to direct payments in next coronavirus bill Trump renews culture war, putting GOP on edge The Hill's Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Reid Wilson says political winners are governors who listened to scientists and public health experts; 12 states record new highs for seven-day case averages MORE (R-Ky.) pulled out all the stops to pass it. 

You can expect a similar rush of wheeling and dealing as the government hurtles toward a shutdown later this month; recent must-pass spending bills have been larded up with ideological poison pill provisions to please deep-pocketed special interests.

Clearly, our system is out of balance. Too many Americans do not believe they have a meaningful say in the decisions that affect their lives. They do not think their elected leaders are responsive to them, the voters. And they know there are underlying governance challenges that skew outcomes in favor of the few at the expense of the many.


There are solutions, though. Some are already pending in Congress, and others are being passed at the state and local level every year. They are solutions that put voters and constituents first. They shift power back to the people.


We need to fundamentally change how campaigns are funded. Citizen-funded elections would incentivize candidates to raise small contributions — in amounts like $10, $20 or $50 — and have them matched with limited public funds so that everyday Americans can run competitive elections without relying on deep-pocketed special interests. In exchange for access to the limited public funds, candidates agree not to solicit big checks from wealthy donors. Connecticut, Maine and New York City have these programs in place. On the same day last month that Congress rammed through its tax bill, the legislature in Suffolk County, N.Y. — home to more than 1.5 million people — passed a voluntary small-donor citizen-funded election system for county offices. And just this week, the D.C. City Council unanimously approved a similar program for elections in the District.

Of course, Citizens United poses its own challenges. Corporations, super PACs and other special interests can threaten elected officials with promises to spend vast sums of money defeating them — or helping to keep them in office. It happened with the tax bill. 

In September, an outside spending group, with Speaker Ryan in the room, previewed television commercials to members of Congress that it intended to run in certain members’ districts about tax reform. Due to loopholes in our laws, these outside groups can raise cash secretly — including from corporations — and block voters from following the money. We need better disclosure laws to shine a light on who is behind election-related spending.

The freedom to vote itself is a key element of restoring a politics that’s responsive to constituents. Voting should be accessible to all eligible citizens. Policies like automatic voter registration would protect the fundamental right of every eligible citizen to vote by making sure their registration is secure, accurate and up to date, so that no one eligible finds themselves kicked out of a polling place due to a paperwork error. Nine states plus the District of Columbia have already approved this reform, and it continues to gain momentum and support across the board. 

Ending partisan gerrymandering is critical, too. This week, in Common Cause v. Rucho, a federal court struck down North Carolina’s congressional map, ruling that partisan gerrymandering “runs contrary to numerous fundamental democratic principles.” Many elected officials who voted for the tax bill in the House of Representatives were unconcerned with facing a competitive challenger in their next election because too many states let politicians choose their voters rather than the other way around. States like California have led the way in solving this problem by establishing nonpartisan independent redistricting commissions to put the power of drawing fair district lines in the hands of citizens rather than politicians. 

These solutions are not untested. Nor do they favor one political party. States and localities across the country are leading the way and putting them into practice.

Legislation introduced last year by Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallSenate rejects Paul proposal on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats chart course to 'solving the climate crisis' by 2050 | Commerce Department led 'flawed process' on Sharpiegate, watchdog finds | EPA to end policy suspending pollution monitoring by end of summer House Democrats chart course to 'solving the climate crisis' by 2050 MORE (D-N.M.) and Rep. David PriceDavid Eugene Price189 House Democrats urge Israel to 'reconsider' annexation Partisan divide on annexation complicates US-Israel relationship National service will give thousands of Americans a chance to recover and rebuild their communities MORE (D-N.C.), the We the People Democracy Reform Act, puts versions of these solutions, plus many more, into one bill. It shows that there are steps that together we can take to perfect our democracy and put people first.

Our elected officials will act on behalf of those to whom they are accountable. We all need to show up, make our voices heard, and move our own proactive agenda that restores balance and resets the playing field in favor of voters — the ultimate authority. 

Stephen Spaulding is chief of strategy for Common Cause; he previously served as special counsel to former Commissioner Ann M. Ravel at the Federal Election CommissionFollow him on Twitter at @SteveESpaulding.