The Common Good
November 2010

Campaign Finance Reform

by Jennifer Hope Kottler | November 2010

This summer's financial reform victory shows that money doesn't always win.

Everyone knows the story of David and Goliath: Though it at first appears to be a losing battle, the good guy wins, the one with the principled stance. We love the story because, somewhere deep within, we want to believe that might does not equal right. We want to believe that Joshua can fight the battle of Jericho and win, and so can we. We want to believe that even in Washington, where very often money equals power, good bills can sometimes pass despite enormous political pressure and money poured in by opponents to try to stop them.

The influx of money to get elected officials' votes -- money for lobbyists, PR, advertisements, and campaign contributions -- is staggering. This flood of cash can encourage a bill's opponents in Congress to at best subvert the intent of legislation, and at worst simply tell lies about what a particular bill would do. And since the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision this January, there is no limit to the money that corporations can spend to help elect politicians sympathetic to their interests. Are you as tired as I am of political advertising that places blame, demonizes the other, and talks about everything except the real issues?

The effort to prevent corporations from financing candidates to do their bidding can feel like a futile battle -- but sometimes even money and influence are not enough to stop positive legislation. The financial reform bill passed in July was a good example. The financial services industry did everything it could to oppose the bill, but after a long, hard fight, advocates for consumers won. Because of that, our financial system is more sound, secure, and protective of consumers. (Advocates for this bill are continuing to do battle with the financial services industry as the rules to implement the new law are being written.)

In the same way, campaign finance reform is a winnable issue. The Fair Elections Now Act would provide for public financing of federal elections. The act would provide funds to match small, private donations above a certain threshold for candidates who opt in. This could eliminate the need for candidates to take large campaign contributions from corporations and slow the steady increase of campaign budgets that we've seen even in local political races. You know who are the strongest supporters of this bill? Former and current lawmakers who have had to raise campaign money themselves. The bill has 160 co-sponsors in the House and 24 in the Senate.

The public also wants campaign finance reform. In a poll last year, voters in every major demographic group supported, by at least a 2-to-1 margin, a system whereby qualified candidates could receive public funds in return for agreeing not to accept large donations. (And nearly three out of four voters believe that campaign contributions by the financial services industry led to lax oversight, serving as a "major factor in causing the current financial crisis on Wall Street").

It’s time to give democracy back to the voters. It’s time to offer David a chance to slay the giant, and give access to the halls of government back to you and me. May we pray and work for the day when the walls of unlimited corporate money and power in our electoral system come tumbling down.

Rev. Jennifer Hope Kottler is director of policy and advocacy at Sojourners.

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