Members of both parties today are diagnosing the problem that money has created in our political system, which President Trump identified early on the campaign trail as “broken”.
And it’s about time. According to polling by the New York Times and CBS News, voters across the political spectrum agree – in a rare show of political unity – that money has too much influence on elections and candidates who win office promote policies that help their donors. Similarly, a December 2016 national Ipsos poll found that 71% of the American public supports limits on the amount of funding individuals could give to independent political organizations like super PACs. Responses varied little between Democrats and Republicans, confirming that public support for campaign finance reform is strong regardless of party affiliation.
This month, Freedom Caucus member Ken Buck, a Republican Congressman from Colorado, released a book lifting the mask off the truth of fundraising in Washington. It told a story of lavish parties and pay-to-play corruption.
The tell-all book, Drain the Swamp: How Washington is Worse Than You Think, casts party leaders as “playground bullies” who go to great lengths to punish dissenters that seek to change the pay-to-play system of exchange – where top committee assignments and leadership posts are tied directly to lawmakers’ fundraising prowess. Selling access to legislative staff is described as common practice (as recent reports have documented).
In his book, Rep. Buck shows he is keenly aware of the perception problem presented by campaign money, pointing to the quota he must live by. In order to retain his spot on the influential committee he serves, Buck must raise $450,000 over the next two years for his caucuses’ campaign operation, according to a review of the book by USA Today. In campaign finance law, both actual corruption and public perception of corruption or influence are significant.
Buck also questions the integrity of the contracting process. He cites a Sunlight Foundation study that shows corporations received more than $4.4 trillion in government contracts and financial support from the federal government. The top 200 companies accounted for 26 percent of the total money spent on lobbying. The study found that “on average, for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government.”
Some of Rep. Buck’s fellow Republicans are joining with their Democratic colleagues and putting forward solutions.
Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) joined with ten of their colleagues, both Republican and Democrat, to ensure there is a cop on the beat enforcing the federal laws designed to limit the influence of money in politics. H.R. 2034, the Restoring Integrity to America’s Elections Act, would restructure the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and create an advisory panel to recommend nominees to fill vacancies with the goal of preventing deadlocks.
Fixing the government agency tasked with monitoring campaign spending will not solve all the problems outlined by Rep. Buck, but it would be a great start.
A functioning FEC could require full disclosure of political spending and complete independence between candidates and super PACs. In addition, the FEC could ensure that government contractors are not bankrolling candidates to try to secure taxpayer-funded contracts.
Yet, over the past decade, the six-member Commission has been mired by gridlock, with the three Republican and three Democratic members routinely splitting evenly on difficult questions of whether to enforce the law—meaning the law is not enforced. The Washington Examiner reported that the number of deadlocks at the commission have jumped 27% in the past 10-years. This increase in deadlock has led to candidates and super PACs in both parties flaunting the law, because political consultants and attorneys that advise campaigns know we are in an environment in which there is virtually no enforcement of violations.
This has had a real effect on public policy. For example, private companies with government contracts have taken advantage of the lack of enforcement to write six-figure checks to super PACs, leading to favorable policy decisions.
How could President Trump show he is serious about fixing the system he described as broken? He could start by appointing FEC commissioners that enforce the law. The FEC’s purpose is to enforce the duly enacted campaign finance laws that protect voters. This bill will help spark the action needed to help it operate more effectively.