The Senate Democrats’ Huge Step Backward

Sensing Americans’ enormous frustration with money in politics, Senate Democrats have now signaled they are preparing a “Democracy Package.” Following the lead of President Obama in his final State of the Union address, the senators have begun to assemble a set of reforms to “boost the profile,” first reports indicated, “of campaign finance reform.”

But the details of this package are astonishingly weak, and would represent an extraordinary step backward. The plan is weaker than those of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. It is weaker than the position of the vast majority of Democrats in the House. And most importantly: It would do little if anything to end the corrupting influence of money in politics.

At the core of the proposed package are four ideas: Senate Democrats would strengthen disclosure; they would propose a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United; they would strengthen enforcement at the FEC and SEC; and they would direct the states to make redistricting decisions through non-partisan commissions.

None of these are bad ideas. But like prescribing aspirin for a broken leg, none of them are going to address the real problem with our Congress.

The core corruption in America’s government is captured in a single aphorism: He who pays the piper calls the tune. The job of a member of Congress has become the job of raising money. Members spend anywhere between 30% and 70% of their time raising money. But they don’t raise that money from the average American. They raise it from the richest Americans.

And those Americans — the ones “who pay the piper” — get to call the tune. Again and again, journalists and researchers have shown how the agenda of Congress gets set by its funders, and how the details of legislation get filled by the lobbyists of the funders.

That’s not to say many lawmakers sells votes. Practically no one in Congress is that corrupt. Or stupid. And no one trying to influence Congress needs to be that corrupt, either. Everyone in Washington understands the influence game. It is a dance, not a bargain. As one member was told by a more experienced colleague when she came to Capitol Hill, “always lean to the green.”

To clarify, she added: “He was not an environmentalist.”

But none of the reforms that the Senate Democrats are talking about would even begin to address this core and corrupting economy of influence.

Democrats like disclosure. Anyone should. But disclosure won’t change the fact that special interests fund congressional campaigns. It might embarrass Republicans, and hence, staunch the money going to Republicans. But it doesn’t change the system, and it’s the system — whether benefiting Republicans or Democrats — that is corrupt.

Democrats love to talk about amending the Constitution to reverse the vilified Citizens United. But they know very well that since the Civil War, America has never passed an amendment opposed by one party. And they know with perfect certainty that their colleague, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), will never support an amendment to reverse Citizens United.

Democrats support law enforcement at the FEC and more aggressive enforcement at the SEC. Who wouldn’t? But the corruption that debilitates Congress is the legal corruption, not illegal corruption. Enforcement won’t touch that.

And yes, the way the House of Representatives is gerrymandered is criminal. But pushing a solution that won’t have any real effect until 2025 isn’t a strategy for getting a government that America can trust. It’s a puff that shouldn’t fool anyone.

The only reform that would have a meaningful effect is to change the way Congress funds its campaigns. And the most promising development in this election cycle had been that both Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed legislation that would do precisely that. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both have supported small dollar citizen funding of congressional campaigns — the first time that’s been central to any major candidate’s platform for as long as anyone can remember.

What the Senate Democrats are considering is an embarrassing retreat. Just at the moment when the Democrats could give America a clear signal of how they would make things different, and just at the moment when the vast majority of Americans have signaled that they would support precisely the change that would make things different (72% in recent polls indicate they support small dollar citizen funding of campaigns), Senate Democrats want to retreat.

Four years ago, in a poll conducted by the Clarus Group, 80% of Americans said they thought campaign finance reforms had “been designed more to help current members of Congress get re-elected [than] to improve the system.” That’s a perfect description of the Senate Democrat’s “Democracy Package.” No doubt it will help them raise money; no doubt it will help them embarrass Republicans; no doubt it will give the candidates something to say when asked about the corrupting influence of money in politics.

But no doubt, this package of reform is not enough to change the corruption in Washington. And it’s time that we progressives step above our partisan allegiance, and call it as it is.

(This essay was first published on June 3 in The Daily Beast.)