Interview with Congressman John Sarbanes

By Jamie Obal

The 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC drastically transformed the United States’ campaign finance landscape.  Citing political spending as form of free speech, Citizens United allowed corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited funds for candidates. This year, the Supreme Court again defended political spending as a form of free speech in McCutcheon v. FEC by eliminating aggregate limits on the campaign contributions that an individual can give in one election season. U.S. Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) has represented Maryland’s Third District since 2007, and championed reform of big money in politics.  Earlier this year, he sponsored the Government By the People Act (H.R. 20) in an effort to boost civic engagement and small donor fundraising.  Congressman Sarbanes spoke with the Georgetown Public Policy Review to share his thoughts on McCutcheon v. FEC, how his legislation works, and the 2016 presidential elections.    

Georgetown Public Policy Review (GPPR):  The Supreme Court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC seems like a huge setback to campaign finance reform efforts.  Do you see substantive campaign finance reform happening before the upcoming midterm or presidential elections?

John Sarbanes (JS):  I think McCutcheon was most definitely a setback for curbing the influence of big money donors in the system.  I’m not sure that it’s a setback for campaign finance reform efforts, though, because I think it highlights how important it is to create another place for candidates to go raise their dollars.  When you get that conversation going and say,  “How do I avoid the influence of the big donors that now have even more influence because of the Supreme Court?”  The question is “Where do we go to create a different system that competes with that influence?”  And that gets you right to the conversation about campaign finance reform. Now, I don’t think that we’re going to pass meaningful campaign finance reform in the near future just because the current leadership in the House would not bring something like that to the floor even if it had even broader support than the 140 cosponsors that we have at present.  But I think that over time we can build momentum both from reform-minded organizations and from national grassroots organizations and the public at large which is the most important constituency.  Across the political spectrum, we can build momentum behind this reform idea so that when the opportunity does present itself in the legislative arena, we don’t have to start from scratch.

GPPR:  How will this ruling affect candidates running for office? What can they do to adapt to a campaign finance system that seems to be driven by big money and special interests?

JS:  Well, unfortunately under the current system, the only way that they can adapt is to redouble their efforts to reach out to those big campaign donors and to the political action committees because the cost of running a winning competitive house campaign now is almost $1.6 million every two years.  So it means that people are going to have to intensify their efforts to get money from those existing sources. That’s why it’s so important that we create another place where people can raise competitive amounts of campaign funds to run a successful campaign. The proposal of the Government By the People Act is to establish such a system in order to compete with the existing system that we have.  I think if we do that, there will be a lot of relief from members of Congress now who feel like there is only one place to go to get the money. They can go to their constituents and be competitive that way.

GPPR:  Your proposed legislation, Government By the People Act, will establish a Freedom From Influence Fund to multiply the impact of donations less than $150 if candidates reject funding from political action committees (PACs).  In an era where elections have become so expensive, can candidates afford to forego millions of dollars from PACs and outside groups?

JS:  In terms of contributions that remain directly to campaigns, I absolutely believe that the kind of system that we propose in the Government By the People Act can generate sufficient dollars so that a candidate can be competitive and can forego the contributions that would come from political action committees and from people like Sean McCutcheon, who was the plaintiff in that case. In fact, we’ve run models to show a lot of my colleagues that if they participated in the system that we want to establish, they could raise sufficient funds.  It was important that we be able to demonstrate that so there would be a practical solution for members of Congress and for other candidates and first time contenders who want to run for Congress and be successful.

GPPR:  Democrats and Republicans have amplified their efforts to reach out to women, minorities, and young people.  What role does campaign finance reform like yours have on mobilizing these key constituencies?

JS:  I think it reinforces it.  In fact we are urging candidates across the country to embrace this message of reforming how we fund campaigns.  Right now I can’t say under the current system to a student that if you give me twenty-five dollars, that’s really going to make a difference, right?  But under the system we propose, that twenty-five dollars becomes one hundred seventy five dollars and I think a student would understand, “Hey, maybe my voice is going to be heard.”  You’ve got something to give to people so that when you ask them to participate, you can say this isn’t sort of a bait and switch here, I really am offering a way for you to be heard. Remember that we live in a world now where the Supreme Court has equated money and speech.  If money is speech, the question is how can the money of a student—ten dollars, fifteen dollars—turn into speech that matters? The way that we turn that into speech that matters is through a matching system that comes in and boosts up the value and power of that voice.  It can be very appealing and motivating for young people and others who right now are disaffected and frustrated.  It can be very motivating in terms of getting them involved again or potentially for the first time in the political process.

GPPR:  There’s been a lot of talk that Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is running for the presidency in 2016.  What are your thoughts?

JS:  I certainly think that he’s done a good job as governor.  I’m proud of the accomplishments that Governor O’Malley and the Maryland legislature.  If he wants to throw his hat in the ring, I suppose that he’ll get a good look from people.   He deserves to, given his track record and the very meaningful public policy that he has been able to advance in our state.

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