Elections in America Symposium Keynote Address: Congressman Sarbanes



This year’s keynote speaker was Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD). Congressman Sarbanes is the author of the Government by the People Act (H.R. 20), which would create a new public campaign financing system to give candidates a way to wage campaigns without taking donations from special interests.

The congressman spoke about how, because his district is close to DC, he enjoys being “one of the few members who can come back home every night” to hear from his constituents, many of whom are very distrustful of Congress. Those conversations worry him because, “I don’t think you can sustain a democracy when the democratic institutions on which it’s based are held in such low esteem by the public.” He attributes that negative impression in part to a sense among ordinary people that their opinions don’t matter to their representatives in a world in which special interests fund campaigns.

Congressman Sarbanes believes that it’s not enough to protect the right to cast a ballot; progressives also must protect “the right to have your vote mean something.” He spoke eloquently about the influence that campaign donations have the day after the election, when the winners go to Washington and are influenced by their donors. The congressman described how he “walks the walk:” he is one of only two members of Congress who has given up all Political Action Committee (PAC) contributions from any source (the other, Jared Polis (D-CO), is a multimillionaire). He argued that the current Supreme Court majority doesn’t “understand” that what frustrates ordinary Americans isn’t necessarily quid pro quo corruption, but corruption on an “institutional level.”

Congressman Sarbanes argues that one way to fight institutional corruption is to focus on giving candidates other options to run competitive campaigns. His Government by the People Act would reduce the influence of the Sean McCutcheons of the world by increasing the influence of ordinary constituents. The bill has three parts:

  1. A MyVoice $25 refundable tax credit for contributions to federal campaigns in each year of the election cycle. This tax credit will broaden the ability of citizens for whom $25 is a lot of money to participate in elections.
  2. The Freedom From Influence Matching Fund, which provides multiple matching for candidates who receive small donations
  3. And, if in the last 60 days before an election a candidate is facing an onslaught from special interests, an additional $500,000 of funding to help her through the home stretch.

The Government by the People Act would allow a candidate who has built a close bond with her constituents by soliciting many small donations to survive an onslaught from super PACs. Congressman Sarbanes believes that, if they are given a choice, candidates across the country would choose time and time again to secure their funding from ordinary citizens rather than special interests. The idea complements efforts to pass a constitutional amendment on campaign finance reform or increase disclosures and transparency, which focus on refereeing the conduct of the money players. The Government by the People Act creates another frame, looking at the millions of Americans who say, “What about us? If money is speech, doesn’t my speech have a role?” For Congressman Sarbanes, the Government by the People Act can harness a lot of Americans’ anger and frustration in a positive way to strengthen the voices of ordinary citizens in their Congress.

For more on the Government by the People Act, check out the forward to this issue’s Harvard Law and Policy Review: Elections in America. 

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