Solving the Six-Billion Dollar Problem

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Nick Nyhart

In the wake of the most expensive election season in history, we checked in with Nick Nyhart, co-founder, President and CEO of Public Campaign, an organization dedicated to campaign finance reform, to ask about potential solutions to the $6 billion dollar problem.  

Lauren Feeney: Six billion dollars were spent on this election. What did it buy?

Nick Nyhart: It bought winners. For the backers of winning candidates, it bought a relationship with those candidates; it bought them access and influence.

Feeney: But Mitt Romney’s supporters spent over $700 million and their candidate lost. Sheldon Adelson spent at least $53 million on eight candidates for various races and none of them won.

Nyhart: There was a small group of conservative billionaires who made loud proclamations about pouring tens of millions of dollars — an unprecedented amount of money from a handful of people — into the campaigns of conservative candidates. They had three real goals. One was to elect the next president, and they came close but failed with Romney as the candidate. The second goal was to elect a Republican Senate, backing hard right ideological conservatives, and they failed spectacularly at that — the conventional wisdom a year ago was that it’d be hard for the Democrats to hold the Senate; instead, their numbers went up. The third goal I think you could say they succeeded in, which was to consolidate the gains made in 2010. Usually, following a wave election like you had in 2010, you’d expect to lose a bunch of seats at the margins that would never have been won were it not for the strong wave of public expression of discontent. Many people thought the Democrats would do much better than they did in the House. So I’d say the conservative billionaires were one for three in their goals.

Feeney: What does it tell you about the effectiveness of unlimited spending?

Nyhart: We’ve always known that the candidate with the most money doesn’t always win, they just win most of the time. And that was still true this cycle. The vast majority of candidates who won were the ones with the most money on their side. That said, there were a number of losses. I think what gets missed in the headlines is that the candidates who beat them despite having less money still had spectacular amounts of money. So big money won. It’s just that the most heralded big-money millionaires didn’t win as much as they sought to win.

Candidates who faced these billionaire-funded opponents had to spend more time fundraising and less time with everyday Americans, and that really tears at the fabric of our democracy. Look at the Sherrod Brown race in Ohio. When you add up the candidate money and the outside money, he was outspent $36 million to $32 million and still won. That extra $4 million didn’t make that much difference. But it did take him $32 million to beat back that $36 million. When he ran six years ago, also in a tight race, it cost about $18 million. There’s huge inflation in what it costs to win, and it doesn’t do the American people any good when the candidate has to deepen their dependence from one election to another on deep-pocket donors. So the billionaires may have lost this election, but big money won.

Feeney: What’s the antidote?

Nyhart: The starting point is something that James Madison said more than 200 years ago — that we should have politicians who are “dependent upon the people alone.” We think a system of small donations plus public financing is the answer. We need to get the small money in and get the big money out. The small donations engage people and encourage candidates to go out and talk to their constituents. So that’s one big piece — we need public financing that is driven by the support of ordinary people in the candidates’ district.

To get the big money out we either need a changed court or a changed Constitution. And it’s not just about Citizens United. There was a series of court decisions. Citizens United has been the most publicized, but there were other ones, like Wisconsin Right to Life, or the McComish decision in Arizona, that have chipped away at the framework. Even before Citizens United, we had a system tilted towards billionaires. In fact, all these billionaires could’ve spent that same money influencing elections before Citizens United. The case that gave them the right to do that, or at least the interpretations of the case, was Buckley. So it’s not enough to overturn Citizens United.  You really need a court that views speech differently and understands it in a different way than the Roberts court does. If there’s an opening on the Supreme Court in the next four years, we need a justice who’s within the mainstream of the American people, and certainly the thinking of the founders of the country on the issue of speech and the power of ordinary citizens in our democracy.

Otherwise, we’ll need to go through a longer process and amend the Constitution. There are efforts that have begun to do that and the results are not to be sneezed at. Right now there are 24 returning senators who have introduced or co-sponsored constitutional amendment measures that would allow reasonable limits to be placed on individual expenditures in politics. In the House, there are 73 representatives in the returning class who favor a constitutional amendment.

Feeney: Is there a specific plan for how publicly financed elections would work? What are the details?

Nyhart: There are several models. If we really want to make politicians accountable to the people, we need a system where candidates depend on ordinary people for their money. So for example, in Maine and Arizona, candidates gather a large number of $5 contributions to qualify for a lump sum of publicly financed money. In New York City, candidates gather small contributions of $175 or less and receive a 6:1 match on those small contributions. A third proposal that hasn’t been tried anywhere would give a voucher to every citizen in the state to apply to an election. In Congress, the bill that has gotten the most attention has been the Fair Elections Now Act, which is a combination of the New York matching funds model and the Arizona/Maine/Connecticut model, where you collect enough small contributions and then you get a lump sum grant. If we combine small donor-driven fair elections with a constitutional amendment or a changed court that allows reasonable limits on outside spending, that’s a policy solution that will put democracy back in the hands of everyday people.

Feeney: But how do we get there from here? We’re currently in a position where corporations and the mega-rich can spend unlimited amounts and regular people have been edged out. So how can the people’s will ever prevail on this issue? It seems like almost a chicken and egg situation.

Nyhart: Nearly 80 percent of Americans want huge and significant changes in the way campaigns are funded. So we need a political strategy that will hold candidates accountable to the public majority view on this issue.

We just saw a very interesting example in New York State. There, one of the major roadblocks to winning a small donor-driven system has been the Republican-dominated state senate. In Tuesday’s elections, that senate may have flipped hands, with an influx of pro-reform Democrats replacing anti-reform Republicans. In one race, between Democrat Cecilia Tkaczyk and Republican George Amedore, the candidates’ views on money in politics became a leading issue. A major reason for that was — ironically — that two independent expenditure groups weighed in on behalf of Tkaczyk against Amedore on this issue, one led by Jonathan Soros, the son of billionaire financier George Soros, and the other by Sean Eldridge, the husband of the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. They spent something close to a half a million dollars. And it wasn’t simply the money. Citizens Action of New York and other pro-reform organizations were very active in this race, helping out Tkaczyk, because they thought she could be the swing vote for reform if she won. So we may see a shift because of reformers developing a political strategy. The race still hangs in the balance, we won’t know the result until the absentees are counted, but if Tkaczyk wins, there will be a chance to install a system of small donor-driven public financing in one of the biggest states in the country. To have this kind of change in New York would send ripples down to Washington, D.C., and to every other state capital in the country.

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