image: capitol building money in politics

An open letter to President Obama: Let’s do something about money in politics

(Crossposted from the Huffington Post)

January 22, 2013

Dear Mr. President:

Your inaugural address was an inspiring call to action by “we the people” to address the great challenges posed by economic inequality, climate change, immigration reform, human rights and security at home and around the world. I write to suggest respectfully that we cannot succeed in those endeavors unless we also address the promise that catapulted you to prominence and inspired millions of Americans to support your candidacy for president: the promise to change the way Washington works.

At Common Cause, we believe that making government work again starts with removing obstacles to voting, breaking the grip that big money enjoys on our democracy, and making the voices of “we the people” heard in elections and the halls of power. You have made many campaign promises to tackle those challenges, but so far they remain mostly unfulfilled.

The 2012 elections showed just how broken our elections are, with millions discouraged from voting due to antiquated registration laws, voter intimidation and misinformation, and the manipulation of voting laws for political gain. The Federal Election Commission has been allowed to break down, crippling enforcement of our nation’s campaign finance laws in a year in which all spending records were shattered, and the public financing system that served presidential candidates of both major political parties for a generation has been abandoned.

The scramble to raise campaign funds has become a full-time job for elected officials from the courthouse to the statehouse and to the Capitol and the White House. Many of the individuals and institutions providing that money do not do so out of civic pride; they want, and too often get something in return. You have a unique understanding of the flaws in this system. In two campaigns for president, you’ve demonstrated that it’s possible to build an impressive small donor base. But you’ve also raised hundreds of millions of dollars from big givers, devoting more time and attention than any previous president to courting them. In last year’s campaign alone, you hosted 222 fundraising events.

It’s time to break this cycle of political dependence and dysfunction. On behalf of Common Cause’s more than 400,000 members and supporters, I urge you to put the full weight of your office behind an agenda to fix our democracy that includes:

  • Increased access to voting. On Election Night, you declared that “we have to fix” the machinery of our elections. We agree. No American should have to stand in line for hours to vote or have to endure the gauntlet of laws and regulations some states have put in place to discourage people from registering and voting. We urge you to support a package of bills that would help people get and stay registered, including legislation allowing voters to register and vote on Election Day in federal elections; blocking states from imposing additional requirements for registration to vote in federal elections; and protecting voters from efforts to discourage their participation through intimidation or the dissemination of false information.
  • Small-donor funded elections. The system of publicly financed presidential campaigns that grew out of the Watergate scandal has been neglected and is broken beyond repair. But your own experience with small donor fundraising, along with successful “fair elections” and “clean elections” programs in Connecticut, Arizona, Maine and other states, confirms that it’s possible to implement a new public financing plan that combines small gifts from individual donors with matching grants of public funds to allow candidates to run and win independent of big money.
  • A constitutional amendment on campaign spending. Decisions by the Supreme Court have created a need for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution allowing Congress and the states to impose reasonable limits on individual and corporate political spending. Millions of voters in Colorado, Montana, Massachusetts, Illinois and California voted last November for measures instructing their members of Congress to pass such an amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision and related cases; legislatures in 11 states and hundreds of localities have done the same.
  • The DISCLOSE Act. The 2012 election was marked by a $1 billion infusion of funds from “independent” groups; about one-third of the money they spent, usually to finance negative television ads, came from individual and corporate donors whose identities have never been publicly disclosed. The DISCLOSE Act, passed by the House in 2010 but blocked by Senate filibusters, would let Americans know who is trying to influence our votes and buy the allegiance of our elected officials.
  • Overhaul of the Federal Election Commission. The FEC is a failed agency, ruined by partisan deadlocks among its members that have left it unable to enforce our election laws and execute critically important rulemakings. We urge you to send Congress legislation creating a new, well-funded election agency, independent of the executive branch, structured to prevent partisan deadlock, and empowered to effectively administer and enforce campaign finance laws. While that legislation is pending, we suggest that you create a bi-partisan panel to recommend a slate of nominees to replace the five current hold-over commissioners — and fill the commission’s one vacancy — with members committed to enforcing and strengthening our election laws. If the Senate fails to act, we urge you to install the panel’s nominees as recess appointees.
  • FCC and SEC reform. Without waiting for Congress to act on DISCLOSE, the Federal Communications Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission can take significant steps to bring political money into the open. Your administration should push the FCC to enforce Section 317 of the Communications Act (47 U.S.C. ยง 317), which requires that broadcast and cable political advertisements “fully and fairly disclose the true identity of the person or persons, or corporation, committee, association or other unincorporated group, or other entity” paying for them. The SEC should be urged to adopt a rule requiring that publicly owned companies disclose their political spending to shareholders and the general public. Corporate shareholders and prospective investors have a right to know how companies are spending their money. The rest of us have a right to know who is trying to buy our elected officials.

We would be delighted to meet with members of your staff to develop this agenda in more detail and assist in securing passage of its legislative components.

Notwithstanding the poisonous atmosphere that seems to pervade official Washington these days, these reforms enjoy strong support among the American people. They understand that big money is at the root of what’s wrong with Washington and they will rally around a president dedicated to fair elections and a government that works for the public interest.

Congratulations and best wishes as you embark on a new term.

Bob Edgar

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