Those of us who cherish the First Amendment often argue that the best antidote to offensive speech is not a ban or regulation, but simply more speech. A similar logic supports a bill in Congress that would rebalance the grotesque influence of big money in political campaigns by giving a louder voice to small donors. “We’re not restricting anyone’s speech,” said US Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland, sponsor of the bill. ‘‘We’re adding speech.”
In a campaign year when a few dozen deep-pocketed plutocrats dominate the public discourse, it’s heartening to know that someone is trying to design a system where ordinary voters can be heard — and without running afoul of the Supreme Court’s decree that money is a form of speech and therefore can’t be restricted. On the sixth anniversary of the Court’s Citizens United decision, the gusher of campaign cash is unabating. And yet, less than half of one percent of the country’s population contributes even $200 to political campaigns. Short of a constitutional amendment, fixing that will take creativity.
Like most campaign finance proposals in this environment, the “Government by the People Act” is somewhat convoluted. It would encourage small donations to congressional candidates by giving voters a 50 percent refundable tax credit for every contribution, up to $50. Candidates who agree to voluntarily cap their individual donations at $1,000, and forgo most PAC contributions, would get a 6-to-1 match from a special “Freedom from Influence Fund,” making the $50 worth $350. A similar system of “democracy vouchers” was adopted overwhelmingly by Seattle voters in a referendum last November.
Besides diluting the power of big money, Sarbanes believes his plan will coax ordinary Americans back into civic life. It’s hardly news that voters are disaffected. A survey by NBC and The Wall Street Journal in November found almost 70 percent of respondents agreeing with the statement “I’m angry because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power.” With an electorate divided over the question of whether puppies are cute, the poll found unity on that statement regardless of party, race, or income. Democracy shouldn’t be a spectator sport, and yet, as Sarbanes says, “We’ve just been sitting up here eating popcorn and unable to play.” The tax credits are almost literally tickets to the game. And a bigger field of participants eventually would have a moderating effect on the action, luring even more citizens from the sidelines.
In his final State of the Union speech last month, President Obama lamented the corrosive effects of big money in our politics and — without mentioning the Sarbanes bill by name — pushed for practical changes that won’t rile the Supreme Court. “If our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution,” he said.
To be sure, the measure has a steep road ahead. It currently has 157 House backers, including a lone Republican (Walter Jones of North Carolina). The House leadership has no plans even to hold a hearing on the bill. Last month, New York’s longtime congressman Steve Israel announced his pending retirement, citing the misery of begging fat cats for money. Israel cosponsored the Sarbanes bill, but as he wrote recently in The New York Times, “As a 16-year veteran of Congress, I’d calculate the probability that the current Republican majority schedules a vote on that bill at: LOL.”
Still, Sarbanes is a happy warrior. Given a choice, he believes, “people are going to build something for themselves instead of just grabbing the pitchforks.” His modest bill is a chance to do something constructive.Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified US Representative John Sarbanes.