What can be done to reduce the outsized influence of special interests and a handful of billionaires on our political system? My new book with Nick Penniman, Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Democracy and What We Can Do About It, outlines several legislative proposals that would go a long way toward ensuring that average Americans can once again exercise their right of self government.
While it’s true that reversing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision will likely take years, there are actions that our lawmakers—the people who work for us—can take to restore our democracy. Yes, the Citizens United decision has enabled the rich and powerful to have greater influence than ever before over public policy and our political system. There are groups that are working for a Constitutional amendment to overturn that decision (it could also be overturned when the composition of the Court changes in the coming months or years). There are also many other things that our elected officials—at municipal, state and federal levels—can and must do now.
So, what are the legislative fixes that we can accomplish right now, regardless of the Supreme Court? Broadly speaking, they fall into four categories that embody the principles of a high-functioning democracy: (1) everyone participates, (2) everyone knows, (3) everyone plays by the same commonsense rules, and (4) everyone is held accountable.
1. Everyone Participates: Citizen funding of elections: This is the “game changer” category. Unless we create better ways of financing politics in this country, we’re never going to be able to rebalance the power dynamic in Washington and the state capitals. There are several types of citizen funding programs, dozens of which are already in place at the state and local levels, including:
- Clean elections, in which candidates receive a set amount of money to operate their campaigns;
- Matching funds, in which a government fund matches every dollar raised from citizens, by some multiple, up to a certain amount;
- Tax incentives, in which people get a tax credit or deduction for political contributions, up to a certain amount;
- Vouchers, in which the government provides each citizen with a certificate for $50 or $100, which he or she can then contribute to a candidate or party; and
- Hybrids, or some combination of the above approaches.
2. Everyone Knows: Transparency: The one thing we know is that darkness encourages bad behavior. That’s why it’s critical that voters know exactly where the money is coming from. And the information should be available online immediately, presented in an intuitive and easy-to-navigate format to give the public the true transparency people need to make informed decisions.
3. Everyone Plays by the Same Commonsense Rules: Reform lobbying: Beyond campaign financing and transparency lies a realm of ideas that is too often overlooked; ethics and lobbying reforms. Many of these involve changing the way lobbyists interact with politicians and government officials. One such fix: Let’s enact at the federal level what many states have in place—bans on campaign contributions from lobbyists.
4. Everybody is Held Accountable: Change the way the elections’ cop works: All the laws on the books are utterly irrelevant without a strong enforcement mechanism ensuring that everyone is held accountable to the laws. Our system of self-government relies, in part, on a citizen’s belief that someone is enforcing the rules of politics, keeping the game clean. That someone is the Federal Election Commission, which, unfortunately, has been dysfunctional for years. We need to fix the FEC.