Senate Bill Seeks to Enhance Voices of All Americans in our Democracy

Written by Joshua Barthel, Intern on June 11, 2015

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Yesterday, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) reintroduced the Fair Elections Now Act, a timely piece of legislation that would dramatically improve how Congressional elections are funded. The disproportionate influence of large donors is central to the growing conviction among voters that the Congressional election process is ultimately unfair. 84 percent of donations to congressional candidates in the 2014 election were itemized contributions that typically exceeded $200. As large donors increasingly drown out smaller ones, American democratic voices become more and more unequal. Over a third of total contributions to Super PACs came from just 50 individuals. 2014 was a watershed moment. The top 100 campaign donors gave nearly as much as 4.75 million small donors combined. Clearly, big money dominates while small donors are drowned out.

The Fair Elections Now Act would amplify the voices of those small donors. The bill would create new type of small donor political action committee known as a “People PAC.”  People PACs would only be able to accept donations of $150 or less per election from individuals. Via the Fair Elections Fund, People PACs would then be able to make campaign contributions of up to $5000 to candidates who qualify under the following Fair Election provisions:

  • Participating candidates would first need to raise a minimum number and dollar amount of small-dollar qualifying contributions from in-state donors and limit all donor contributions to $150.
  • In primary elections, candidates would receive a base grant depending on state population. They would also receive a 6-to-1 match for small dollar donations up to a defined matching cap. All subsequent donor contributions would be limited to $150.
  • In general elections, candidates would receive an additional grant for television advertising. Again, all subsequent donor contributions would be limited to $150.

Senators Baldwin (D-WI), Boxer (D-CA), Brown (D-OH), Franken (D-MN), Gillibrand (D-NY), Heinrich (D-NM), Klobuchar (D-MN), Leahy (D-VT), Markey (D-MA), McCaskill (D-MO), Menendez (D-OR), Merkley (D-OR), Murphy (D-CT), Sanders (I-VT), Shaheen (D-NH), Udall, and Warren (D-MA) cosponsored this bill. 

This bill would be effective because of its focus on the candidates themselves. With total spending in the 2014 election reaching nearly four billion dollars, most spending (42 percent) still went directly to candidates rather than parties or outside organizations. Once elected, responsibility to act falls on them. Although admittedly a major step, severing ties with special interest donations may be less painful than many expect.

Incentives for this legislation can be found on all sides, especially for members of Congress. The Fair Elections Now Act would liberate legislators from the need to constantly chase around large donors and special interest groups. As members of congress report daily schedules revolving around three to four hours of “call time” for fundraising, this bill would help to restore congressional priorities to good governance rather than winning over donors.

It is easy to understand why those priorities are currently so skewed. When big money has such a disproportionate influence in overall donations, large donors are the ones evaluating Congress and deciding who stays and who goes. In other words, they are doing the job that is supposed to be left to voters alone. Returning power to small donors and ensuring fairer elections will help to restore public trust that has been eroded by years of big money dominance.

By providing the framework for aspiring or current members of Congress to qualify as Fair Elections candidates, this bill would give our public servants the opportunity to rise above the fray. The quid pro quo is simple: candidates accept Fair Elections rules along with a more diverse and representative donor pool and are in turn rewarded with higher credibility and a weight off of their shoulders once elected. This is a way for Congress to become both more accountable and more efficient with its time.

With all of this focus on candidates, the Fair Elections Now Act is careful not to forget about small donors themselves. With this group in mind, the bill also establishes a “My Voice Tax Credit” to encourage individuals to contribute to campaigns. The bill sets a maximum refundable amount at $25 per individual and limits participation to those who contribute less than $300 to a candidate or political party in a given year. This tax credit will help to incentivize political participation in a crucial way. For those too busy or unable to spend hours working on a political campaign, it is important to maintain an electoral system that keeps those $5 donations relevant. Under these provisions, the donor class would no longer be limited to the few with economic power to shift election results. Rather, it would be a class to which everyone could belong.   

The Fair Elections Now Act addresses several problematic aspects of our political system at once. It simultaneously realigns the incentives of members of Congress and facilitates small donor participation. Passage of this bill would be a critical step towards ensuring fairness and wider representation in Congressional elections.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Money in Politics

Tags: Empowering Small Donors

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