As the dust settles from a divisive presidential election, one message is clear: the American people are sick and tired of business as usual in Washington. They want a government that works for them, not special interests.
While Donald Trump says he wants to “drain the swamp,” we know that his campaign benefited from the typical rolodex of mega-donors and dark money from Super PACs. There are already signs that his priorities in office will serve his campaign donors, rather than the people who elected him (what a coincidence). Donald Trump doesn’t want to “drain the swamp,” he wants to double down on the old “politics as usual” that only enriches himself and those already at the top.
The fact is: we will never make Washington work for the people until we fundamentally change the way we conduct our elections and reduce the influence of big money in politics. It’s a simple matter of “supply and demand.”
First, we need to restrict the supply of campaign contributions by publically financing our elections, imposing disclosure requirements, overturning Citizens United and reinstating campaign contribution limits. I know how much time and attention fundraising consumes. When I was first elected to Congress in 2014, my primary was the most expensive race in the country. That’s why I’ve introduced [ or, I am introducing ] legislation that would restrict Members of Congress from making direct solicitations for campaign contributions. With the cost of winning an election going up each year, elected officials are forced to choose between fundraising calls and spending time with constituents.
Second, we must address the demand for campaign contributions that forces too many elected officials to spend their time “dialing for dollars.” Members of Congress are encouraged to spend 30 hours a week fundraising for their re-election. They wouldn’t be doing this if they did not feel their job depended upon it. More than ever, it does.
A key tactic in reducing the demand for campaign contributions would be eliminating the highest expense of any campaign: advertising. Eighty to ninety percent of most campaign budgets are spent on advertising, with most of the money going to pay for television ads. That’s why I introduced legislation to provide candidates publically financed vouchers for advertising airtime, with strings attached to prevent abuses. In order to qualify, a candidate must be the nominee of a vote-getting party and agree to a $200 limit on all campaign contributions. Any remaining campaign expenses – staff, phones, office rent – should be supported by small, individual contributions.
Campaign finance reform is an issue that touches on the core representational nature of our democracy. By changing the roll of money in politics, we are allowing the voice of the citizenry to be heard more clearly. This could be the most impactful progressive reform of the century, helping us all live up to the true promise of our political system.
Our need for electoral reform is a message that transcends party lines. In the last election, Bernie Sanders ran a highly successful primary campaign that was fueled by grassroots donors—a central theme of his campaign. In addition, President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly claimed that his personal wealth ensured that he would not owe favors to campaign bundlers. Both Democrats and Republicans can agree that the hallmark of active citizenry should be participation, not the ability to write a campaign check.
The road to more open and fair elections will not be easy. Obviously, amending the constitution to correct Citizens United and halting the rise of dark money Super PACs would be a tremendous win for our democracy and would slow down the influx of money influencing our elections. But amending the constitution is no easy task. That’s why we must start with proposals like mine, that limit the demand for campaign dollars and reduce the overall need to spend time raising money.
As the new administration takes office and we reflect on the tumultuous campaign season, I am reminded of President Truman’s words: “The highest office in the land is that of citizen.” Members of Congress are sent to Washington represent the will of their constituents, not the will of wealthy donors. Both Democrats and Republicans must come together to ensure that the voices of citizens from around the country are heard more clearly in our political process.
Rep. Brendan F. Boyle (PA-13) is the Congressman representing the 13th Congressional District of Pennsylvania. His district spans part of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.