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The venture capitalist Tom Perkins recently suggested that he should have a greater voice than others in selecting our government because he’s rich. “You pay a million dollars in taxes,” he told the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, “you get a million votes. How’s that?”
Perkins later insisted that he had intended to be outrageous. As most Americans understand politics, however, he was just stating the obvious.
Instead of extra votes on Election Day, we who are wealthy enough to give money to politicians get special access before, and influence after, as candidates pursue the cash that is the life’s blood of their election campaigns. The more you give, the more access and influence you have. It’s as simple as that.
Our leaders’ supplication to donors is not new. But in the age of Super PACs the effect has become far more pronounced — even as the post-Watergate limits on campaign contributions look increasingly irrelevant.
There is a Super PAC for almost every candidate and cause — including one that I helped create, with the ironic mission of decreasing the influence of money in politics. But it would be a mistake to call this diversity. Our democracy is meant to be more than a disagreement among rich people.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to Perkins’ vision of a plutocratic dystopia.
Over the past few weeks, legislation has been introduced in both the House of Representatives and Senate that could upend the political landscape. If passed, these bills would sever the dependence that candidates now have on large contributions and Super PACs by offering them a real alternative: the support of small contributions from ordinary voters magnified by a limited amount of public funds.
The Government by the People Act was launched with 130 co-sponsors and the support of a diverse group of more than 40 national advocacy organizations. Within a week, more than 300,000 people signed on as “citizen co-sponsors,” vying to have the voice in politics that every citizen deserves.
This strong support signals the birth of new momentum and shows that meaningful reform does not require a constitutional amendment. The battle against super PACs will not be won by eliminating them. It will be won by making them less relevant and putting ordinary voters back at the center of our elections.
The effort is even more impressive when measured against the prospects for immediate success. Though the proposals enjoy broad bi-partisan public support, and some Republican members of Congress have privately expressed their support for change, the GOP leadership remains doggedly opposed.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has taken a particularly strident, if unpopular, position. He argues that campaign spending should be both unlimited and undisclosed, and is vehemently opposing all alternatives. Thankfully, other politicians have begun to appreciate that this is an issue that matters to voters and that any candidate will be better off as a supporter of reform than an opponent.
The excitement surrounding these congressional bill proposals is matched by the more immediate opportunity for success in New York State. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has long advocated for citizen-funded elections as part of his efforts to clean-up Albany, has included a similar proposal in his budget submission to the state legislature.
In past years, Cuomo used his budgets to signal that Albany is working again. Other than delivering the budgets on-time, though, it has been little more than business as usual. New York State continues to be scarred by corruption scandals (three sitting legislators are now under indictment) and no legislation with economic consequence passes without an accompanying story of the campaign contributions that greased the wheels.
The same legislators who benefit from the current system have stymied Cuomo’s previous efforts at reform. But if the governor stands firm during budget negotiations, he is likely to have the victory that has so far eluded him.
Victory in Albany would be a boon not only for New Yorkers but for all Americans who believe that our democracy should do a better job at representing the interests of ordinary voters — not just people like Perkins and me, who have the resources to buy influence.
It would be the clearest signal yet that a new era of opportunity is upon us and would blaze the path for other states and the eventual passage of citizen-funded elections for Congress.
This must be a prospect that terrifies Perkins — every voter having a worth equal to his or mine. But it is far closer to the democratic promise so fundamental to our national identity. That ideal has been under increasing threat since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United further opened the floodgates for money in politics.
Finally, the tide is beginning to turn.
Jonathan Soros is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and co-founder of Friends of Democracy.
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