'Government by the People Act' Proposed to Counter Supreme Court's Citizens United Ruling

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Posted Feb. 12, 2014

Interview with Rep. John Sarbanes, Democrat of Maryland, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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On Feb. 5, 128 members of Congress introduced the "Government by the People Act" in the U.S. House of Representatives. Among that number was one lonely Republican, Walter Jones of North Carolina. The bill is a response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of January 2010, which declared that corporations are people and money is a form of protected free speech which may not be regulated by government.

The proposed act creates the Freedom from Influence Fund that matches contributions of up to $150 to participating candidates on a 6 to 1 basis; provides a $25 refundable tax credit for small contributions and enhanced matching funds in the final 60 days of a general election campaign. The Act also institutes what it calls People PACs, or small donor committees, that aggregate the voices and power of ordinary citizens to counter wealthy donors.

Two previous bills designed to rein in the impact of millions of dollars being spent by corporations in elections did not get far in Congress. But John Sarbanes, D-Maryland, the main sponsor of the “Government by the People Act,” spoke with Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus about why he believes the environment in Congress to pass such legislation maybe more favorable now than in the past, though he also thinks his bill is unlikely to win passage in this current session of Congress.

REP. JOHN SARBANES: We're ready to move forward from this point. We're really at the starting gate of, I think, an effort to build momentum across the country among the public that is very angry and upset with Washington and would like to see major change in the way campaigns are funded. And we think we can build that momentum and sustain it so that when the window of opportunity presents itself to bring a bill like this to a vote and be successful, we'll be ready to take advantage of it. We've been working with our colleagues for almost two years in pulling this bill together. It reflects that there are many outside organizations that are members of an unprecedented coalition that have also been pushing hard on members of Congress to join this effort.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you see any changes over the past couple of years that might make your bill more successful than a couple of previous bills that were introduced to respond to Citizens United and didn't really get much traction?

REP. JOHN SARBANES: People are increasingly angry at this sense that they can't be heard in Washington, that they're being left out, that their voices are being rolled over by SuperPACs and big money interests. Any polling you do ... they recently did polling in the past couple weeks, and in free response the biggest problem people cited was government. So I think there's a real cynicism out there and distrust that government is really working for the people. And the challenge for us is where do we take that anger and that sense of frustration.

BETWEEN THE LINES: John Sarbanes, please describe what's in your bill.

REP. JOHN SARBANES: It does three things. It creates what we call the My Voice tax credit, which is a $25 tax credit available for contributions to congressional campaigns, and this would empower everyday citizens to participate in the funding side of campaigns. Secondly, it establishes the Freedom from Influence Matching Fund, that's what we're calling it, which is matching dollars that come in behind those small contributions and amplify them, boost up the voice of everyday citizens. And that combination of the tax credit plus the matching fund can really drive contributions so that candidates can raise sufficient dollars to run a viable campaign, and that's what will make them turn to the public. And the third piece is wanted to make sure that good candidates who participate in a system like this don't get wiped off the map in the final days of a campaign. So for participating candidates, there's going to be additional resources they can access in the last 60 days of a general election campaign to help keep their voice in the game if SuperPACS or other outside groups come into that race. And so the combination of those three things I think really empowers everyday citizen that their voice counts, that it matters.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Just on that last piece ... I live in Connecticut and we passed campaign finance reform several years ago, but there have been some recent changes that weaken it. The original law included extra payments if another candidate not using public financing came in with a lot of spending. And that was declared unconstitutional or in any case a court decided that was not permitted. So isn't your third point the same?

REP. JOHN SARBANES: It's like it but we structured it so it passes Constitutional muster. And the way we did that is we don't differentiate on who can access those additional dollars in the last days of the campaign, so regardless of whether a SuperPAC is coming after you or not, you can still pull the trigger on that additional support. But the way we've structured it is that a candidate who chooses to do that will have to meet some additional requirements, and as a result we think the ones who will actually take advantage of it are the ones who really are in danger from the SuperPAC spending. So we've managed to avoid the constitutional issue but still make it available some meaningful support for candidates in that last stage. It's a good question, and it's something we made sure we took a look at.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You mentioned these other grassroots groups that are organizing around this issue. Is your hope that groups and individuals who live in Republican districts can pressure their representatives to support this legislation?

REP. JOHN SARBANES: Absolutely, and I think they will. And you look at...you have all the traditional good government groups are part of this effort – the Common Causes of the world, and Public Campaign and Public Citizen and so forth. You expect to see them there and they've been leaders for decades. But now we have organizations like the NAACP, the Sierra Club and Communication Workers of America and other labor organizations that are also coming to this effort because they recognize that the change they want to see on behalf of their members is being thwarted by the influence of big money, so they need to make reforming the way campaigns are funded a part of their advocacy. And it's the presence of groups like that that can bring to bear significant pressure in districts all across the country that will help us build additional support for this within the chamber.

I also want to mention that polling data suggest that a majority of Republicans want to see this kind of change, and as a result I think you'll see Republicans in Congress – even if they don't embrace our bill or sign onto our bill – they will be putting forth proposals that reinforce the narrative of our bill, and in that sense will give additional momentum to it.

"Government by the People Act" which was introduced in Congress on Feb. 5, can be read here.

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