The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United that allowed Super PACs and other outside groups raise and donate obscene amounts of campaign cash, may be a blessing in disguise for advocates like Nick Nyhart, who are looking to get special interest money out of politics.
“I think people know there’s a problem, but they’re looking for solutions,” Nyhart told a group of U.S. Rep. John Larson’s constituents Tuesday.
Nyhart is a Connecticut resident who runs Public Campaign, a nonprofit dedicated to getting special interest money out of politics. Larson believes one of the best solutions, would be for Congress to pass his Fair Elections Now Act, which sets up a public campaign finance system similar to Connecticut’s Citizens’ Election Program.
If the system were in place today a candidate for the U.S. House would have to raise 1,500 in small contributions totaling $50,000, and in return that candidate would receive a $1.1 million public grant, Nyhart said. If they needed more money to remain competitive, then a candidate could continue raising small contributions, nothing more than $100 per person, and get up to $5 million.
The public grant amount would increase for U.S. Senate seats, but Nyhart said in the House very few of the members needed more than $1 million to win.
Larson explained the system would be paid for with subsidies currently going to “big oil and big farms.” Initially, Larson had proposed using the sale of the analog broadcast spectrum as the seed money for the initiative.
“You can’t expect congress to turn out legislation in the broad public interest without a public campaign finance system,” Nyhart said. “If you want to see politics that is for the many you have to first deal with a system that right now is all about the money.”
No one knows that more than Larson himself, who as a member of Democratic leadership was expected to raise a certain amount of money for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Larson has a PAC which raises money to help other Democratic candidates get elected. Synergy PAC headed by Larson has held 62 events to raise money since 2008. The PAC was started in 2006, according to OpenSecrets.org.
“The amount of money in politics is corrosive and the answer to that is for Congress to act,” Larson said. “Unfortunately, while we are working for a more perfect union, we must live within the one we have.”
The current system requires candidates to raise large sums of money or risk being silenced by their opponents.
“Until we have a system in place for fair elections, anyone not willing to raise the money necessary to compete is left without a voice to be heard,” Larson said.
An estimated $6 to $7 billion will be spent in this election cycle, Nyhart said.
More than half of the $230 million raised by Super PACs this year comes from just 47 individuals, according to a recent Demos and U.S. PIRG report. Just over 1,000 donors gave $10,000 or more, which accounts for 94 percent of the Super PAC money raised through the end of June.
“That’s a tiny fraction of all Americans playing a huge role in what’s going on,” Nyhart said.
As if those statistics weren’t enough, the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam gave a combined $36.3 million to Super PACs in the 2012 cycle.
But Super PAC’s aren’t the only ones raising money. Congressional candidates are also raising money at alarming rates.
“Just six percent of their money comes in contributions of $200 or less,” Nyhart said. “I think that tiny 6 percent fraction goes right to the heart of the problem.”
In order to get the legislation passed it will need a broad coalition of support that goes beyond the good government groups like the one headed by Nyhart. It will need to include business leaders, unions, and every other political constituency. Next, it needs politicians who want to change politics.
It needs politicians brave enough to say, “the system worked for every one of us. It got all of us here, but I think we should change it,” Nyhart said. “It takes politicians being willing to step outside of the status quo.”
Finally, every voter needs to ask their candidates which side they’re on in the debate over public financing.
“This is a litmus test issue,” Nyhart said.
And he believes it’s becoming one. Americans say the second highest priority for the next president should be reducing corruption in the federal government, according to the latest Gallup poll.
“The American people are there on this issue,” Nyhart opined. The alternative is “if nothing is done, there will be less of a voice in Congress for everyday citizens.”