Should Big Money Be Required For Political Viability?
Written by Taylor Henley
How can you win an election without receiving huge contributions from high-dollar donors? Quite frankly, you can’t. Just ask Buddy Roemer, former governor of Louisiana who ran in the Republican presidential primaries this past spring.
Mr. Roemer testified at a recent Senate Judiciary hearing (“Taking Back Our Democracy: Responding to Citizens United and the Rise of Super PACs”) about his campaign pledge to refuse any donations larger than $100.
Not surprisingly, he failed to raise enough money to make him a major contender in the race. Without sufficient funds, he could not effectively get his message out to voters.
Because of his lack of media coverage and public support, he was not invited to any of the debates, which denied his campaign a national platform to gain more support. This vicious cycle ultimately destroyed his candidacy.
As a political science major who followed the Republican primaries fairly closely, I considered myself at least familiar with the names of most of the candidates who ran—and yet I had no idea that Buddy Roemer ran for president until I heard him testify at the hearing last week.
Listening to his story drove home the unfortunate reality that countless well-qualified candidates at every level of government are consistently being shut out for lack of funds. Is this what our democracy is all about? Do we really want a system that forces candidates to cater to the interests of high-dollar donors instead of the interests of all Americans?
Proponents of the system argue that campaign funding and donors have little “demonstrable” effect on the roll call votes of politicians. However, according to Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute and participant in Wednesday’s Bipartisan Policy Center-sponsored discussion (“The Capital Behind Capitol Hill: Developments in Campaign Finance in the 2012 Election Cycle”), money has a significant agenda-setting effect.
Put simply, politicians won’t bring topics to the floor that could offend their donors. Furthermore, forcing legislators to spend much of their time in office raising money negatively impacts political action, adding to the steady erosion of public opinion of our government.
If we continue along this path, according to former campaign manager John Trippi, “It is much more likely that all the candidates in both parties will be meeting with billionaires than figuring out how to mobilize millions of people.”
Fortunately, there are steps that we can take to rectify this broken system. Common Cause supports public financing of campaigns, full disclosure of campaign contributions, and limits on campaign financing through the proposed Fair Elections Now Act, the DISCLOSE Act, and the Amend2012 campaign to overturn Citizens United (the Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates for unlimited campaign spending).
Though the barriers to reform are undoubtedly steep, public pressure for change has found success in the past. In Montana, for example, a population fed up with “copper baron” William Clark bribing his way into a Senate seat led the drive for the 17th amendment, which allowed for direct election of Senators for the first time in American history.
“Washington, DC appears to be broken,” declared Roemer at the July 24 Senate Judiciary Hearing. “But it’s bought first,” and those who profit from the status quo have little incentive to repair it. The only way the necessary changes will come to fruition is if the public keeps pushing for reform.
Taylor Henley is a rising junior at Duke University, where she is majoring in political science and pursuing minors in history and Spanish. While at school, Taylor is actively involved in Duke Club Running, Duke International Relations Association, Zeta Tau Alpha sorority, Duke Catholic Center, and intramural sports, and she fundraises for Circle K International, a volunteer service organization. Prior to joining Common Cause, she interned in the office of Senator Blumenthal (D-CT). She is originally from Danbury, CT and is studying abroad in Madrid, Spain in the fall. Taylor is looking forward to working with Common Cause to promote American democracy through reforming campaign finance laws and protecting voter rights.