No matter what issue is most important to you, I believe the corrupting influence of money in politics is at the very core of congressional dysfunction. It is beyond time to reform our campaign finance system and take steps to repair our government. And while we ultimately may need a constitutional amendment to completely undo the damage done by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, there are steps we can take now that have broad support from the public and would make a meaningful difference.
Here’s what I would propose:
FIRST, and perhaps most importantly in the short term, we must bring greater transparency to the spending that’s already happening — including shining a bright light on the massive amount of so-called “dark money” being poured into our elections.
There is a bill in Congress right now that would address this issue, called the DISCLOSE Act. DISCLOSE stands for Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting a Light On Spending in Elections.
This legislation would require all organizations spending money in elections — including super PACs, political nonprofits, corporations, and labor unions — to publicly disclose donors giving $10,000 or more during a single election cycle. It would also require them to file a report with the FEC if they spend $10,000 or more on political advertising, and shuts down the ability of organizations to move money through other entities to avoid disclosure.
Polls consistently show that two thirds or more of the public supports greater disclosure of campaign spending — including roughly even numbers of Democrats, independents and Republicans. The DISCLOSE Act has 129 sponsors in the House and 44 in the Senate, including both Senator Klobuchar and Senator Franken. And yet the current majority in Congress refuses to hear the bill or allow a vote.
This is one of the many reasons why we need a new majority in Congress.
One area where we may be able to make some bipartisan progress on disclosure in the meantime is in modernizing our laws to apply the same disclosure requirements to online advertising as we already require for other forms of paid communications.
The need for this is especially clear after last year’s elections, as we’ve learned recently that Russian operatives purchased as many as 3,000 ads on Facebook in order to influence the outcome of that election. Facebook says as many as 10 million Americans saw those ads.
Senator Amy Klobuchar is taking the lead on a proposal that would prevent this from happening again. Her legislation — which is being worked on in the House by Congressman Derek Kilmer from Washington State — would require anyone purchasing ads online to register their ads and state both how much and when they are spending.
That is a commonsense proposal that should pass easily. Of course, the same is true of the DISCLOSE Act. Bringing greater transparency to all political spending is foundational, and we can’t let up until significant progress is made.
SECOND, we need to level the playing field for candidates by reducing the influence of the wealthiest contributors and outside groups, giving candidates a greater voice in their own elections and empowering those who can’t afford to write checks for thousands of dollars.
Right now, one half of one percent of all Americans are responsible for 68% of the political contributions made to candidates, super PACs, and political parties, according to data from the 2016 election cycle.
Given that, where do you think politicians and elected officials spend most of their time? With people who can afford to contribute $10 or $25 at a time, or with the very tiny fraction of people who can write checks for $5,400 and special interest PACs that can write them for $10,000?
Given the precedents set by the Supreme Court, we face limitations in our ability to curtail individual giving by wealthy individuals and special interest groups. Still, my plan calls for significantly lowering contribution limits in order to reduce their influence and afford ordinary citizens a greater voice.
We need to couple this idea with efforts to encourage greater participation by Americans giving in lower dollar amounts. Right now, just 12% of Americans contribute at any amount. We need to increase that participation so that candidates have the ability to raise the resources they need from a broader base of people.
To that end, I believe we should offer an incentive for more Americans to participate by affording a tax credit or refund on contributions to federal candidates, capped at $100 per cycle. Minnesota’s Political Contribution Refund (PCR) program — which was brought back by Democratic Governor Mark Dayton and Republicans in the state legislature last year — could be a model for that.
There are legitimate concerns about using public dollars to broaden participation in elections, of course, and I believe it would have to be paid for by the reallocation of existing resources — not a tax increase. But we should at least take time to study the impact of efforts like ours in Minnesota — and others in Seattle, Maine, Connecticut, California, and Arizona — to see whether they’re having the intended impact on our elections: Leveling the playing field between candidates and donors of great means and those without. If they are, we should consider replicating them at the federal level.
THIRD, we need to reduce the influence of outside spending — including by foreign governments — in our elections.
As a starting point, Congress should pass the Get Foreign Money Out of Elections Act. This proposal, introduced by Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland, would close a campaign finance loophole that allows American-registered but foreign-owned and controlled corporations to funnel unlimited amounts of money into U.S. elections. This loophole is another consequence of the Citizens United decision, and we must close it immediately.
While that’s the most extreme example of outside spending, we also know that political action committees and other special interest groups are flooding our local elections with outside money.
In fact, here in the 3rd District, it’s already happening — more than a year from the election.
The American Action Network, now one of the nation’s most prominent dark money organizations, recently announced a $200,000 ad buy in support of Erik Paulsen, which is in addition to the hundreds of thousands they’ve already spent on his behalf. And they’re not alone.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC funded by billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and special interests including the oil and gas industry, has actually opened an office in our district and is already paying people to go door-to-door in support of Congressman Paulsen.
Once again, the preponderance of groups like the AAN and CLF can be traced directly back to the Citizens United decision, and unless that decision is overturned through a court case or a constitutional amendment, we are limited in our ability to eliminate them altogether.
Still, there is a proposal that would get us a little bit closer to limiting or even eliminating the influence of outside groups: Ending single-candidate super PACs.
These PACs are created with the sole purpose of supporting an individual candidate. We’ve seen them operating at the national level in recent presidential elections but they’re now pushing their way into Congressional races too. There are proposals in Congress right now that would clamp down on the proliferation of such groups — which, by the way, currently benefit candidates from both parties.
Perhaps that’s why nothing has moved in Congress. We should change that.
FOURTH, it’s time to actually drain the… pool.
I believe the vast majority of people who go to Congress do so with honorable intentions. But when they arrive in Washington, D.C., they instantly become part of a corrupt system that rewards money and influence, and creates disincentives for those seeking to do something about it. As the money piles up, it becomes a force from which it is increasingly difficult to escape.
President Trump talked about this often on the campaign trail — and at first, I was hopeful that it would be an area where he could show some real leadership in reforming our system.
That didn’t last long, unfortunately, and the list of ways in which he has gone back on his pledge is too long to list now. So, it’s up to Congress to do something. And if they don’t, it’s up to you to send people there who will.
I believe the first thing we should do is to further close the so-called “revolving door” that exists between members of Congress and individuals working in federal government and then cashing in on their connections and influence by taking lucrative lobbying jobs on the Hill.
There are a number of proposals that would achieve this, including one from Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon. His bill would bar political appointees from lobbying for five years after serving for an administration — an increase from the current two-year ban — and permanently bar any appointee from lobbying for a foreign government.
We should also do more to close federal lobbying loopholes and tighten reporting requirements for lobbyists. There are many proposals out there that would achieve this — we just need more members of Congress to put the public interest ahead of the special interests in order to get it done.
FINALLY, we need to restore faith in our democracy, and elevate participation in our elections.
The first thing we should do is declare Election Day a national holiday. If Columbus Day qualifies, shouldn’t the day on which we exercise our precious and sacred right to vote qualify?
By declaring Election Day a national holiday — and perhaps moving it to a weekend day as opposed to a work day — we would both elevate the importance of civic engagement, and afford more Americans the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.
The need is clear — and the numbers are alarming. 40% of eligible voters either couldn’t vote or chose not to in last year’s elections. In the 2014 elections, 64% didn’t vote — the worst midterm election turnout in 70 years. That’s shocking.
There are a lot of reasons why eligible voters are choosing not to do so, of course. We should be making it easier for eligible voters to register and vote — not harder. But we also need to restore faith in our democracy so that Americans have confidence that the system isn’t rigged.
That starts with campaign finance reform, but it should also involve electoral reforms — starting with redistricting.
The Redistricting Reform Act of 2017, sponsored by Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California, would require states to establish independent, multi-party citizen redistricting commissions, and would set strict eligibility standards to prevent conflicts of interests among their members.
All too often, partisan legislators and Governors work together to draw maps intended to give their party an advantage in elections by creating fewer competitive districts and maximizing the number of districts where their party is all but guaranteed to win.
This leads to gerrymandered districts that group together communities with little in common, oftentimes diluting the electoral power of communities of color and other minority groups.
As in other areas, states are already taking the lead on reform efforts, from California to Ohio. We should follow their lead, and ensure that state and Congressional district lines are drawn fairly, transparently, and with the goal of increasing — not decreasing — the number of competitive seats.
Perhaps then we would see more elected officials working to represent the interests of the many and not the few — which would in turn inspire greater confidence in our democracy.
Taken together, I think these proposals — increasing transparency, leveling the playing field, reducing the influence of outside groups, draining the swamp, and restoring both participation and trust in our democracy — would have a significant and positive impact on our country.
And when it comes to campaign finance reform, I’m not just talking the talk — I’m walking the walk. I’m not accepting contributions from PACs, federal lobbyists, or other special interest groups in my campaign, which is why End Citizens United, the country’s foremost organization advocating for comprehensive reform of our campaign finance system, has endorsed me.
My commitment to you is that I will never put self-interest or special interests ahead of yours or ahead of my own principles and values. I want to prove that when regular people join together and work hard, we can accomplish anything — including defeating an entrenched career politician funded by the moneyed special interests in Washington.
And if we do that, I promise I will be a loud voice for elevating this issue, reforming our corrupt system, and repairing our government in Congress — even when that means standing up to special interests, or my own party.
If you care about this issue as much as I do, I hope that I can earn your support. The best way to affect real change and repair dysfunction is to elect a new generation of leaders — and a new majority in Congress — who will take this as seriously as I do.
I’ll leave you with one more shocking number: There are just SIX members of Congress out of 535 who don’t take PAC or special interest money right now. I want to be lucky number seven.
I’m Dean Phillips, and I approve this message.
By Dean Phillips
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