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Democratic Congressman John P. S. Sarbanes introduced his plan to combat big money in politics with a caution sign on his PowerPoint slide: “WARNING: Money is Dangerous to Your Democracy,”
The alert—written in big, yellow letters—introduced his concerns over the current system of campaign finance and his hopes for legislative reform.
According to Sarbanes, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1988, congressional representatives spend 30 to 70 percent of their time fundraising, which distracts them from the legislation they are elected to craft.
“We’re operating at 25 percent concentration,” he said. “We raise money in the morning, we raise money at lunch time, and we raise money in the afternoon.”
Using his 2012 campaign as an experiment, Sarbanes committed to an incentive structure that forced him to reach a funding quota at the grassroots level before he tapped into funding from large donors. In the process, he said he discovered that the current system makes it nearly impossible to run a successful campaign without becoming beholden to special interests. He wants to make it realistic for willing candidates to reject the influence of lobbyists and groups with unlimited donation capacity.
Under the Grassroots Democracy Act, Sarbanes’s proposed solution, each citizen would receive a $50 tax credit, potentially in the form of a coupon, to use specifically for donations to congressional candidates of choice. To participate in the program and be labeled “grassroots candidates,” politicians would refuse money from so-called Political Action Committee, find 2,000 under-$100 donors, and raise at least $50,000 from those grassroots donors. A public fund would match donations under $100 to these grassroots candidates at a rate of 5 to 1 or 10 to 1. The act also would set aside money for candidates besieged by SuperPACs through what Sarbanes calls “The People’s Fund.”
Sarbanes believes Washington is finally ready to tackle campaign finance reform.
“For a long time most members of Congress were saying, ‘I hate this game, but I know how to play it,’” he said. “But I think now the money has gotten so big and so all-consuming that there’s starting to be a new critical mass emerging and saying ‘We can’t do this anymore.’”
“I think it would be a game changer and one of the best things that could happen for third-party candidates,” said Bill E. English, who works as a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and read the full text of the act. “But once Democrats and Republicans figure that out, it won’t pass.”
Julia A. Novina, a “concerned citizen” not affiliated with Harvard, said she thought Sarbanes’s reforms were not radical enough. “The system is so broken it needs a major overhaul, and this validates the system.”
Law School professor and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center Lawrence Lessig, who introduced Sarbanes, praised the congressman for his dedication to reform.
“There will be no congressman more involved in bringing about this critical—I would say republic-saving—legislation,” he said.
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