Congressman John Yarmuth: ‘Letting big campaign donors give more is a defeat for democracy’
(Editor’s note: This op-ed from Congressman John Yarmuth, Ky., 3rd District, was first posted on the Courier-Journal website. It’s reposted here with the permission of the author.)
By Congressman John Yarmuth
The problem with America is that there’s too little money in politics. And the problem with politics is that wealthy individuals have too little influence.
I’m not seeing a groundswell of support for this absurd idea. And yet this — not stopping the Republicans’ government shutdown — is Mitch McConnell’s cause du jour.
On Tuesday, Sen. McConnell and his big-money allies in the Republican Party will once again ask the Supreme Court to give billionaires more influence on public policy through our elections.
Sen. McConnell and the Republican National Committee are backing Alabama Republican donor Shaun McCutcheon in a challenge to the aggregate limits on individuals contributing to campaigns.
During the current two-year cycle, individuals can contribute as much as $123,200: $48,600 to candidates, $74,600 to parties and committees.
It should go without saying that the number of people who are able to contribute on this scale is minuscule. But the ranks of those who would be affected by the removal of these limits cannot be overstated.
It is simply not possible to turn up the volume on the already amplified voices of a few wealthy donors without drowning out the millions of Americans already struggling to be heard.
If this effort succeeds, and individuals are permitted to pour $3.5 million each into next year’s congressional elections, democracy will have lost. More political power will be consolidated into fewer hands. The well-off and well-connected will have even greater access to those who can craft policies that benefit them, while the impact of the average American’s voice is further diminished.
And the fundamental American principle that Congress should answer to the people who elect us — not high-dollar donors who fund campaigns — will continue to wither under this sustained assault.
Examples of this abound.
Our complex tax code, with its seemingly endless loopholes, is a direct result of that dependence on deep-pocketed outside sources for campaigns. The world’s biggest oil and gas companies receive tax breaks totaling an obscene $4 billion per year, even though their top officials have told Congress they don’t need them.
Three years after we enacted the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, some of the law’s most critical protections remain shelved due to an immense lobbying effort by some of the biggest corporations in the world.
Since the influx of money that followed the Citizens United and SpeechNow cases that gutted campaign finance law, the situation has only gotten worse. Now, as two-thirds of Americans oppose the Republican shutdown — which has left millions of working families without food assistance, diminished Head Start programs that children and families depend on, and halted critical financing for small businesses — politicians stay the course, assured of the support of wealthy conservative donors.
The fact is, we will never have a truly balanced budget or a more equitable tax system while the well-off and well-connected are allowed to control members of Congress and, in turn, key aspects of public debate.
As Sen. McConnell notes in his brief for McCutcheon:
Just as intensity of support can be divined by the number of volunteer hours spent, for many if not most contributors the intensity of support is directly related to the size of the check.
But flip the coin and you’ll find yourself unable to show support for your own beliefs without the giant checks to back it up.
If you own a television, you know exactly what those checks pay for: commercials, and a lot of them. Every time Sen. McConnell scores another personal victory against common-sense campaign finance regulations, another commercial floodgate opens on the airwaves. So this time next year, when you want to throw your DVR through your TV to make the constant noise of attack ads stop, remember who put them there.
Sen. McConnell expects to spend more than $30 million in his re-election bid, and we can only guess at how much that will be amplified by the millions flowing in from outside special-interest groups.
So far, a measly 3 percent of Sen. McConnell’s $17.3 million in fundraising has come from small-dollar donors. In fact, 90 percent has come from outside Kentucky, as the Senate minority leader holds out his hat from Beverly Hills to the headquarters of Exxon.
This is not the republic the framers intended. When they created Congress — and when the people approved the 17th Amendment, appointing themselves the electors of the Senate — they wanted to ensure government was accountable to the people it serves. The more we undermine campaign finance laws, the further away we slide from that fundamental principle.
About Congressman John Yarmuth: U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-3rd District, is a member of the House task force on campaign finance reform. He is lead sponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act, as well as a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.