How to Tame Big Money in American Politics

September 19,  2019

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, especially Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, bemoan the power of big money in American politics. Yet all they offer in the way of a solution is futile calls for a constitutional amendment, or to “overturn Citizens United,” which is an impossibility now that Kavanaugh has replaced Kennedy on the Supreme Court. Making this silly discourse almost surreal is the fact that a workable path to campaign finance reform does exist and has even been introduced as a bill into the House of Representatives.

I refer to Rep. Ro Khanna’s “Democracy Dollars Act,” H.R. 7306, introduced in December 2018. Khanna’s bill was in part inspired by the book Voting With Dollars, by two Yale Law School professors, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres (Yale, 2002). Khanna’s bill creates a novel public financing mechanism for federal elections, one which probably cannot be struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, because it does not limit political giving or spending, which the Court deems a form of free speech. Presidential candidates Kirsten Gillibrand and Andrew Yang have proposed similar reforms. Under this new mechanism, the federal government gives every registered voter a virtual account of “Democracy Dollars,” say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters cannot withdraw this money for personal use. Instead, they assign this campaign cash to the candidates or political committees of their choice.  As of 2016 there were about 200 million registered voters in the United States. At $50 per voter, that translates to ten billion dollars in public campaign financing. By way of perspective, the 2016 federal elections, Congressional and presidential together, cost about $6.5 billion in private donations and spending. Democracy Dollars thus offer a meaningful counterweight to the power of millionaires and billionaires in our politics, making our political system more truly democratic. Indeed, this reform would drive a lot of the private money out of our politics.

No candidate would be compelled to use the Democracy Dollars system of public financing, and very many would need private donations to get their campaigns off the ground. But then they could opt into the Democracy Dollars system, receiving public financing in return for forswearing all future private donations. Any candidate who did not do so, and chose to rely exclusively on private money, would be fiercely and justly accused of preferring to serve wealthy donors instead of the public interest. In this way the power of millionaires and billionaires in our politics would be dramatically reduced. At present, wealthy donors pay the piper and call the tune. They determine which candidates are viable and available for the public to vote for, and they narrow the range of policies which these candidates can embrace once they take office. But the Democracy Dollars Act would turn the voters into the donors – collectively even bigger donors than the fearsome Koch brothers. It would strike a powerful blow for the restoration of American democracy.

Democrats should make the Democracy Dollars Act the single most important issue of the 2020 elections, not least because without deep reform of campaign finance, every other item on the Democratic agenda will be thwarted. We can’t address climate change as long as the Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries. We can’t fix health care as long as insurance companies and big pharma have so much of Congress in their pockets. We can’t repair our infrastructure, fund universal health care, relieve the burden of college debt, address economic inequality, or tackle climate change without trillions upon trillions of dollars in new revenue. This revenue can only come from sharply higher taxes on the wealthy – levels of taxation that they haven’t paid since the years of World War II and the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. As long as politicians rely on millionaires and billionaires to fund their campaigns, they can’t touch tax increases with a ten-foot pole. And there is a second reason why Democrats need to move the Democracy Dollars Act to the top of their 2020 agenda.

The Democracy Dollars Act is part of an important, larger pattern that has escaped the media’s notice: Democrats consistently champion reforms aiming to strengthen American democracy, while Republican politicians increasingly turn their back on democratic values. Through partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression, Republicans strive to disenfranchise Americans who might vote against them. They undermine democracy by lying to the voters, for example about climate change, or by saying that tax cuts for the wealthy will pay for themselves with increased revenue. Worst of all, Republican politicians unfailingly support a president who displays blatantly authoritarian inclinations, who bridles at all restraints on his authority, who calls the free press “the enemy of the people,” who dangerously politicizes the civil service, and who routinely violates the spirit of the Constitution.

A look at the Democrats presents a very different picture, especially as revealed in the first bill introduced in the House this year, the For the People Act. Democrats champion campaign finance reform. They strive to make it easier for Americans to vote, not more difficult, and they propose to end partisan gerrymandering by establishing apolitical commissions to redraw electoral districts. The Democracy Dollars Act should be the centerpiece of Democratic strategy in 2020: to present this election as a battle to save American democracy, which at present is under greater threat than it has been at any time since the Civil War. Such a strategy would not only do justice to the urgency of the present moment. It would also be shrewd politics, because it offers the only message that might unify voters across party lines. Many Americans will reject Medicare for all or the Green New Deal, but every American – or so I hope – still believes in democracy.