Senator John Cornyn,
I have one single question for you: what are you going to be doing to stop the gradual return of unfettered special interest influence in Washington DC?
For decades, really picking up since the advent of political advertising on television, the U.S. political system’s maddening addiction to money, predominantly sourced from special interest groups, has caused Congress to become more and more detached from the needs of the nation and from reality itself.
The problem has been exacerbated by Citizens United v. FEC, which opened the floodgates to theoretically unlimited and more importantly unaccountable money that has flooded our nation’s airwaves with negative and sometimes factually incorrect advertising via the Super PAC (this lack of transparency even goes directly against the wishes of Justice Kennedy’s opinion, which emphasized that Americans needed to know where the money was sourced). During the 2010 midterm elections and again in the 2012 presidential election, inordinate amounts of this Super PAC money was spent, often crushing the political aspirations those who were less well funded.
I, along with many of my fellow Americans, have had enough.
Why is campaign finance reform important?
The first answer comes from Princeton professor Larry Bartel. He conducted an excellent study published in 2005 on Senate voting patterns in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, and observed that you, as a U.S. Senator, don’t seem to care at all about the poor.
Here’s what he writes:
My analyses suggest that the views of constituents in the upper third of the income distribution received about 50% more weight than those in the middle third (with even larger disparities on specific salient roll call votes), while the views of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution received no weight at all in the voting decisions of their senators. [Emphasis my own.]
Although statisticians caution against making too many extrapolations, one could easily imagine that the new campaign finance landscape enabled at Citizens United has actually made the problem even worse today.
Professor Bartel concludes:
The economic order of the contemporary United States poses a clear and profound obstacle to realizing the democratic value of political equality.” What he failed to mention was that the maddening effect our current system of financing campaigns is directly related to the tendency to overemphasize the views of deranged billionaires. As The Center for Responsive Politics astutely pointed out, during the 2010 midterm election, only 0.26 percent of Americans made campaign contributions exceeding $200, and only .05 percent reached the $2,400 limit. Worse, only 10 percent of Americans made a political donation at all. Although a large number of small donations remain a substantial source of funding for politicians, it is largely overshadowed by a small number of large donations. In other words, the people who fund your political campaigns is horribly lopsided towards the wealthy.
The second answer gives you a compelling personal reason to take up arms against the current system of campaign finance. Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig estimates that congressmen spend anywhere between 30 percent to an appalling 70 percent of their time fundraising. That’s time not spent doing casework for constituents, researching more about the most pertinent issues of the day, or, you know, actually reading your legislation. This fundraising also more than likely includes little quality time actually spent with constituents, many of whom have requests themselves about how you should vote.
In order words, in meaningful campaign finance reform that includes provisions for a robust publicly funded election system, you would be able to spend more time connecting with constituents and, you know, actually representing them. This would restore fundamental republican principles of our governmental system.
The third answer comes from your fellow politicians, state congressmen from states such as Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut that have varying levels of publicly funded election systems. Professor Lessig explains in his excellent book, Republic Lost:
Though the details of these programs are different, the basic structure of all three is the same: candidates qualify by raising a large number of small contributions; once qualified, the candidates receive funding from the state to run their campaigns.
…These “clean money,” or “voter-owned,” elections have had important success. Candidates opting into these public funding systems spend more time talking to voters than to funders. They represent a broader range of citizens than the candidates who run with private money alone. And they have succeeded in increasing the competitiveness of state legislative elections, making incumbents if not more vulnerable, then at least more attentive.
With the possible exception of the final point, all of these are wonderful benefits. Even regarding the final point, if your constituents believe that your opponent can do a better job than you at helping run the country, then it is the simple reality of democracy. Who knows? Your opponent might even do a better job, and if they don’t, you can step right back in the next election cycle.
So what can you do to give representation back to the American people and uphold political equality?
There are many solutions out there, but in my opinion, the best one comes from Professor Lessig. Here is how he explains his plan:
Almost every voter pays at least $50 in some form of federal taxes. So imagine a system that gave a rebate of that first $50 in the form of a “democracy voucher.” That voucher could then be given [in part or in whole] to any candidate for Congress who agreed to one simple condition: the only money that candidate would accept to finance his or her campaign would be either “democracy vouchers” or contributions from citizens capped at $100. No PAC money. No $2,500 checks. Small contributions only. And if the voter didn’t use the voucher? The money would pass to his or her party, or, if an independent, back to this public funding system.
Fifty dollars a voter is real money: more than $6 billion an election cycle. (The total raised in 2010: $1.86 billion.) It’s also my money, or your money, used to support the speech that we believe: this is not a public financing system that forces some to subsidize the speech of others. And because a campaign would have to raise its funds from the very many, it could weaken the power of the very few to demand costly kickbacks for their contributions — what the Cato Institute calls “corporate welfare,” like subsidies to ethanol manufacturers, or tariffs protecting the domestic sugar industry. Cato estimates that in 2009, the cost of such corporate welfare was $90 billion. If cutting the link to special interest funders could shrink that amount by just 10 percent, the investment would, across a two-year election cycle, pay for itself three times over.
You can continue to deny that who funds your campaigns has a substantial impact on the way you vote. Hell, many of you and your colleagues appear to believe that climate change is a hoax and are unmoved by any overwhelming body of evidence that contradicts your ideological views, whether or not they are motivated on kissing the asses of the special interests you serve.
A dedicated few have raised the banner to fight special interests. Buddy Roemer believes in comprehensive campaign finance reform and ran for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. However, the media that hosted the debates, whose funding via commercials is held hostage by the corporations that make up special interest groups, systematically denied his ability to participate in the debates. Among the developed world, only in America can a former governor and congressmen with views dangerous to special interests and greatly beneficial towards public interest and our nation not even get a chance to express his views in a more public forum.
Another, Arnold Hiatt, the chairman of Stride Rite Shoes, has donated millions of dollars supporting the cause of campaign finance reform. In 1996, he was the Democratic Party’s second largest contributor, funding the campaigns of 40 congressional candidates who supported campaign finance reform.
You are in a unique position to join these early heroes. Should you still feel apprehensive about the entire idea, Professor Lawrence Lessig’s excellent book, Republic, Lost, just may convince you otherwise. If you want a shorter read, I outline some of Professor Lessig’s most important points and added in a little bit of my own analysis in a 13.5-page blog post.
I thank you for your consideration for reading this rather lengthy letter.
An extremely concerned constituent