The Common Good
January 2013

PACs Gone Wild

by Nick Penniman | January 2013

Big Money's corrupting influence on the elections is way out of hand. Here's how to fix it.

JUST AFTER THE election, a New York Times editorial implored the president and Congress to "get to work fixing the current badly flawed, out-of-date campaign finance system." The Kansas City Star called it "painfully obvious" that the system needed change.

Those were after the 2008 and 2004 elections.

We all know how the cycle works: Every four years, politicians mount ever-more-expensive campaigns. After each election, the nation's papers call for reform. Meanwhile, business as usual—the business of the lobbyists, that is—continues in Washington.

So here's a proposal: Let's put an end to this cycle. Call it the "Reform in Four" campaign.

Step 1: Build a bigger army. We need to immediately broaden the coalition for reform—from environmentalists to the faith community to pro-reform Republicans, corporate leaders, and Tea Party members who are concerned about cronyism. The good news is that, in a July 2012 Gallup poll, 87 percent of Americans said that "reducing corruption in the federal government" should be a "very important" or "extremely important" priority for the next president. It ranked second, just below job creation (at 92 percent).

Step 2: Create a wave of Teddy Roosevelts. Reform needs champions; right now it doesn't have enough. Candidates in both parties will need to be recruited and supported to run against the Big Money system. Reformers are sometimes uncomfortable with this step, in part because they work for nonprofit organizations that are barred from getting involved in elections. But as the CEO of a national environmental group told me: "When I first came to Washington, 30 years ago, I didn't think that you had to get involved in the messy game of politics and elections to have an effect. Now it's clear to me that that's the only way. Not having a political edge is a killer. Reform groups don't have one."

Step 3: Pass laws! Once a bulked-up coalition has enough politicians willing to fight tooth and nail against institutionalized corruption, the movement will have the power to pass state and national laws. Fund for the Republic, which I head, has cooked up model national legislation that covers all aspects of the problem—from the lack of transparency to the undue influence of lobbyists to the way campaigns are financed. Other legislation could be moved first at the state level. Reformers in New York, for instance, are trying to create a new state-wide campaign finance model in which the state matches the campaign contributions of small and medium donors 6-to-1, making them almost as important to campaigns as wealthy donors.

Step 4: Change the Court or amend the Constitution. As the Supreme Court has demonstrated in the last few years, especially with Citizens United, it can pose a significant barrier to campaign-finance regulations. But there are multiple ways of dealing with the courts. First: Create new legal precedents that offer the justices ways of viewing money in politics through a different prism. Second: Change the majority on the court. Citizens United was a 5-4 decision; one vote could switch future rulings. Third: If all else fails, go around the Court and amend the Constitution—a route that is receiving a lot of energy right now.

Year after year, cycle after cycle, we have allowed the problem of money in politics to mushroom. Yet we haven't been able to muster the energy to tackle it.

We must now. We have no choice.

Nick Penniman is executive director of Fund for the Republic, a nonpartisan organization working to reduce the influence of money in politics.

Image: Price of vote, 3dfoto / Shutterstock.com

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