Panelists decry influence of money in politics

Jan. 31, 2013 @ 08:54 PM

The influx of big money into elections is corrupting the electoral process, “having a terrifically negative impact on our way of government” and “devaluing our votes,” say sponsors of Congressional legislation designed to curb its influence.

But the only solution to truly limiting the influence of big money in politics, Rep. David Price told a packed audience at Duke University Thursday night, is “an awakening of political and moral outrage — and I fervently wish for that awakening.”

During a discussion of “Big Money vs. Grassroots Democracy,” Price, the long-time 4th District Democrat, said full disclosure of the names of political donors is at least a first step in controlling the impact of big money on elections.

“We need to know who’s paying for ads and we need to tighten the rules of affiliation and coordination between campaigns and superPACs,” he said.

Price is a sponsor of the Empowering Citizens Act, which would limit coordination between campaigns and superPACs, the political action committees that can contribute unlimited funds in support of a political issue. They were made possible by the Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United.

The growth of superPACS, said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., has contributed significantly to public distaste for politics.

“There is a deep, deep cynicism” among the public, he said. “They don’t believe their voice can be heard.

“People are feeling defeated, frustrated about whether the political process can solve their problems. They feel the government is bought and sold. I don’t think that’s so, but there’s an increasing dependency on these sources of big money.”

Elected officials are also feeling burdened, Sarbanes said.

Citizens United made “it necessary for members of Congress to spend an inordinate amount of time raising money,” Sarbanes said. “In some ways, we are professional fundraisers first, legislators second.”

Because of that, he added, “you don’t have time to do other things. You can’t study. You don’t have the time to get to know your colleagues. You are nervous, always wondering when a money drone is going to knock you down.”

Sarbanes is a co-sponsor of the Grassroots Democracy Act, which would try to counter the effect of big money by, among other things, establishing a tax credit and a matching public financing system that would make small contributions more appealing.

“The public is looking for some way to respond [to the influence of big money],” Sarbanes said. “If someone can give $25 and that can be amplified five or ten times, that can begin to balance out the impact of big money and big donors.”

Anita Earls, the executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, suggested that a future Supreme Court might eventually overturn Citizens United.

“This is a civil rights issue,” she said. “We need legal strategies to chip away or outright overturn the Supreme Court’s decision. That happens — and sometimes that happens more quickly than you would think.”

Earls also argued for support of a Constitutional Amendment on the right to vote that would include campaign finance reform stipulations.

But, she added, “I’m not Pollyannaish about how difficult it would be to pass a Constitutional Amendment.”

In the meantime, said state Rep. Larry Hall of Durham, “publicly funded campaigns, that is the way to go. If we don’t do that, we end up with the best governor and best legislature money can buy.”