Conservative Campaign Finance Reform Increases Participation

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John Pudner
Take Back Our Republic
As somebody who over the years ran his fair share of political campaigns, I now frequently get some version of the following question, “So you used to run campaigns? Isn’t the deal that special interests contribute millions of dollars to politicians and then politicians give those same special interests something in return?”

My simple answer was always, “Too often, yes.” But it doesn’t have to be that way.

That’s why earlier this year, I announced the creation of Take Back Our Republic, a non-partisan, grassroots group intended to engage conservatives in every state of our great country to debate the pros and cons of conservative approaches to campaign finance reform.

So what do conservative solutions to campaign finance reform look like? Well, one thing is for certain, they currently aren’t being discussed in Washington. In a recent interview with the left-leaning website VOX, President Obama warned about the dangers of what he called “unlimited money” in politics and even expressed support for a constitutional amendment that would task the federal government to “regulate campaign spending.”

As conservatives, we fundamentally disagree with this approach. The fundamental problem isn’t that there’s too much money in politics, it’s that too few Americans are participating. Which is why we should seek to expand the market for political speech and encourage more Americans to let their voices be heard. Our family, our friends, our neighbors — all of whom happen to be taxpayers — deserve to have a say in who runs our country and how it is run.

There’s no question that we live in a nation full of people who are rightfully suspect of the pay-to-play nature of American politics. That’s why incentives must be explored to inspire fellow citizens to open up their minds (and their wallets) to be a part of the solution.

What if we offered families a tax credit that would allow them to contribute money to somebody they believe in? How many more households would explore the possibility of giving $50 or $100 to a campaign — any contested election at the local, state, or federal levels — if they knew that money would have gone to the IRS instead?

Another conservative approach to campaign finance reform would be to raise the limit at which donors must be reported. The current level is $200 and has not been adjusted for inflation or any other factors for years. Why not up that number to $500? Transparency is of utmost importance and high-level donors should be identified, but I doubt anyone thinks that in this day and age a Congressman or a Senator can be bought for $500.

The fundamental issue is that we want more citizens to participate more fully in the democratic process. When people were refusing to register to vote because they didn’t want to get on a list for jury duty, laws were changed so that jury pools were pulled from drivers’ licenses instead to clear an obstacle that was preventing people from exercising their First Amendment right to vote. Now people are scared to participate more fully by writing a check because they are nervous that if they write their first $500 check, due to a recent raise or starting a new business, they will get on a list. Let’s clear that obstacle as well.

Along those same lines, I strongly oppose the notion that somebody can be punished over a political contribution. We saw that recently when Brendan Eich, the CEO of Mozilla was fired from his job for sending $1,000 to support a traditional marriage referendum. If that’s acceptable, who will be targeted next? Catholic Church donors? NRA members? I believe most citizens would agree with a prohibition on anyone losing their job simply for standing up for their beliefs.

Last year, $356 million in political contributions came from small donors – just a little more than that came from the 100 huge donors – and there was an average of 10,000 small donors per congressional district. Being an analytics guy, I believe these changes would make those numbers more like $1 billion coming from small donors with around 25,000 of them per congressional district. If you believe the fundamental problem is simply the amount of money, then you may believe this is a bad idea because it results in more money. However, if you agree that the fundamental problem is low participation, then this would be a great result because elected officials would be forced to move their focus from a few huge donors to the 25,000 or so constituents who were giving small contributions.

This is what a commonsense, conservative approach looks like to solving the problem of money in politics. For far too long, liberals have dominated this debate and it’s time for a fresh, new perspective to be heard.

From school boards and state legislatures all the way to the White House, 2016 will likely be the most consequential election of our lifetime, which is why we should seek to involve as many Americans as possible to determine its outcome.

John Pudner is executive director of the new, conservative grassroots organization, Take Back Our Republic, In the 2014 primaries, he jumpstarted the campaign of Dave Brat, who would ultimately unseat U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, an unprecedented upset in political history.
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