David Ignatius, The Washington Post
It has become a truism that the American political system is suffering from dysfunction. But weirdly, even the insurgent candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, don’t talk much about how they would fix it. This is a populist insurgency without a clear manifesto.
So it’s refreshing to hear Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) present a detailed action plan to try to repair what’s broken. This proposal isn’t a cure-all. It wouldn’t fix the immigration problem or fund Social Security or fight terrorism. But by changing the way we fund elections, this proposal could make it easier to elect the politicians who would make the U.S. government work again for its citizens.
Sarbanes presents his proposal in the current issue of the Harvard Journal on Legislation. It’s a simple idea: Congress should free itself from big-money, special-interest domination by encouraging an alternative system of small contributions that would be matched with public funds. This isn’t a new idea — Teddy Roosevelt proposed a version back in 1907 — but it’s a good one, and a way to start curing what ails us.
“The republic is in dire straits,” Sarbanes writes. “The governed perceive the government as corrupt. The vast majority of Americans are convinced that the wealthy and well-connected call the shots in Washington. . . . Americans are increasingly convinced that a plutocracy has taken hold.”
Sarbanes explained in an interview what he sees as the downward spiral of U.S. politics. “The solid citizens are judging that the system isn’t responsive to them. When these folks vacate the political town square, it creates a vacuum — and extremists take over. A second thing happens, too: By leaving, people cede the town square even more to the elites, which drives policy even further away from what people want.”
Members of Congress are caught in this vortex. Unless they’re personally wealthy, they’re perpetually raising money. Campaign spending for House elections increased 610 percent between 1984 and 2012. Sarbanes writes that a House seat cost an average of $1.5 million in 2012, which meant that a candidate had to raise more than $4,000 a day in the off-year to have the necessary stack of cash. No wonder they have no time or inclination for solving problems.
Sarbanes has a twofold answer to this money-driven process of decline. First, he would create a 50 percent tax credit for small campaign donations up to $100 in every two-year election cycle. Second, to amplify the voices of small contributors, he would provide a 6-to-1 match for their donations to qualified candidates. To participate, candidates would have to raise at least $50,000 in small contributions, limit each donor to $1,000 per election and forgo money from private political action committees.