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Donald Trump Is Eating Our Harvest

People and organizations who advocate for political power reform need to notice and speak up about what is happening in this presidential election.

Reformers have done a good job over the years of helping the general public understand the damage being done by privately funded elections and by Citizens United.  We have also offered solutions.

Now, thanks to the work we have done, both the problem and the solutions are part of the presidential campaign discussion.  Hillary Clinton’s website extensively details her solutions, including her support for publicly funded elections and a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United.  These reforms are supported on Jill Stein’s website. Gary Johnson’s website does not acknowledge that we have a money-in-politics problem.

How about Donald Trump?  Part of his appeal for many people is the idea that he is not taking big money from big self-interested donors.   On his website’s “Issues” page he says, “I’m self-funding my campaign”.   That way, “I don’t owe anybody, anything”, he says in his top-of-the-page video.

There is no interpretation of “self-funding” that accurately describes Trump’s campaign.  His statement is a lie.  There is no other way to put it.  But, many people believe this to be true and they like Trump for it.  Like Clinton and Stein, Trump is tapping into the deeply felt anger and frustration of people who know that the political system has been corrupted.

Reformers and reform groups have a special, trusted place of expertise in this discussion.   Advocates for political power reform must speak up.  We must draw attention to the candidates who offer solutions and call out those who do not.

We need to take advantage of the opportunity Trump presented to us when he posted this totally indefensible statement.  We need to collectively and continuously insist that he remove this claim from his website – until he removes it.  We need to point out that other candidates are offering real solutions, and call on Trump to offer real solutions, too.

We are being used.  Donald Trump is eating our harvest.  Advocacy organizations need come together and speak up!

9 Reasons Money-in-Politics Reformers Should Doubt the Sincerity of Incumbents Who Say They Support Reform

By Frank Kirkwood

Of the one hundred and eighty plus members of Congress who have co-sponsored reform legislation around publicly funded elections I believe there are two or three dozen of them who would actually vote for that legislation – if the day ever came when it was called for a vote.

Here are reasons we should question their sincerity:

1.  They are not fools.

Actually passing publicly funded elections will mean that an incumbent may face a competitively funded challenger in the next primary and general election and perhaps in every election for the rest of their careers.  Since so many incumbents (90%+) represent safe, one-party districts, a real opponent is something that very few of them have to worry about now.  From a self-interested point of view, it would be foolish to support reform.  Thankfully there are some members of Congress who are willing to look beyond their self-interest.  But how many?

2.  They have already found their “sugar daddies”.

Incumbents have lined up their own reliable sources of campaign money.  Most don’t need public funding themselves and have no interest in helping to fund an opponent in their party or the other party.

3.  The “Co-Sponsor Maneuver” solves their problem.

With so many citizens disgusted with Congress and disgusted with money-in-politics corruption, how do members of Congress respond when their constituents demand change?  Republicans, at least so far, have been free to ignore the question.  Democrats often respond by claiming that they themselves are reformers.  “Just look at the record” they say, “I have co-sponsored the public funding of elections bill.  I co-sponsored the resolution to fix Citizens United!”

Many of these incumbents are trying to have it both ways.  They have found a safe, comfortable place for themselves in Congress.  They have no self-interest in fanning the flames of reform or in telling the general public that there are solutions that can fix our democracy.  They quietly tell the reformers that they support fundamental change.  “You can look it up,” they say, “I am a co-sponsor of the solutions.”  They are not the problem, its the Republicans!   This “co-sponsor maneuver” quickly and at little political cost eliminates the likelihood that reformers back in their district will make trouble for them.  They quietly sideline citizens’ demand for reform of the corrupt system.  It is, after all, the same system that protects and keeps many of these incumbents in Congress.

4.  They say they support reform but they give money to candidates without regard to the candidate’s position on reform.

Members of Congress play a very important but largely invisible role: campaign financier.  Because they have a vote in Congress, people who want something from the government give money to members of Congress even though most of those members face no real opposition on election day.  These members then pass on large amounts of money to candidates in other districts but do so without regard to the candidate’s position on reform.  Is a member of Congress who does nothing more than sign a non-binding co-sponsor pledge to reform money-in-politics corruption but then spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to elect candidates who have no interest in money-in-politics reform, really a supporter of reform?  I don’t think so. (More  and more)

5.  They don’t pressure their party to become the “Party of Reform”.

A co-sponsor of reform legislation who contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars to a party that has no commitment to reform is working against us, not for us.   Some people like to imagine that the Democratic Party is the “Party of Reform”.  It is not.  But, it could be if we reformers insist that our representatives contribute money only to candidates and organizations who are committed to reform.

6.  They don’t want to be seen in public with the problem or with our solutions.

Only 16% of the co-sponsors of the public funding of elections bills in Congress (H.R. 20, S. 1538) and 24% of the co-sponsors of resolutions to reverse Citizens United (H.J. Res. 22, S.J. Res. 5) make any mention at all of the money-in-politics problem on their websites.  (Review)

Real reformers would take the opportunity to use their websites to acknowledge the public’s frustration and to educate their constituents about the solutions that are available to the money-in-politics problem and to let the citizens know that they, their representative, is on the forefront of this fight.  Real reformers are doing what they can to fix this problem rather than trying to pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

7.  In 2010, Democrats could have passed publicly funded elections, but they didn’t.

Those who believe the dangerously counter-productive idea that electing more Democrats to Congress will, in itself, bring about publicly funded elections should have a look at 2010, the last time the Democrats had control of the House, the Senate, and the Presidency.  That year, the Fair Elections Now Act [H.R. 6116/1826] (a bill similar to the current public funding of elections bills) was approved in committee and sent to Speaker Pelosi.  The Speaker only needed to speak and the bill would have been voted on by the entire House of Representatives, 165 of whom were co-sponsors.  She said nothing.  There was no vote.  The bill died quietly at the end of the year.  (More)

Party leadership in Congress can provide cover to any member who needs, for political reasons, to co-sponsor reform.  These members can easily co-sponsor a reform and have plenty of reason to believe that the day will never come when they will need to actually follow through on their promise.

8.  Claiming to be a money-in-politics reformer is a great way to raise money.

We have all received the emails from candidates bemoaning the problem of money-in-politics and asking for campaign contributions so they can fight the fight for reform.   Citizens are really eager to fix this problem so these emails produce cash for the candidate, whether the candidate is sincere or not.

9.  If all we ever ask of our politicians is that they say they are reformers, that may be all they ever do.   

Here are a couple of case studies from my interactions with my Congressman and Senator:

My Congressman went from saying he was a supporter of publicly funded elections to being a destroyer of publicly funded elections.  (More)

By applying a little citizen pressure one year we got our Senator to co-sponsor the publicly funded elections bill.  He never had before.  He never has since.  (More)

Incumbent members of Congress have both the motive and the opportunity to appease reformers without ever having to deliver real money-in-politics reform.  Local constituents need to organize to insist that incumbents do everything in their power to advance reform or face election day defeat.

Actions will separate the “Reform Candidates” from the “Posers”

The recent anniversary of the Citizens United decision brought to my mailbox messages from candidates and reform organizations alike.  This is roughly what they all said:  “I agree with you.  Money-in-politics corruption is awful!  Now, give me your money and/or give me your vote.”

Fixing money-in-politics corruption is very popular among citizens so, naturally, candidates see the issue as an opportunity.  Even insincere candidates (and especially their fundraisers) must be very tempted to pose as sincere reformers in order to attract money and votes.

Will these candidates, if elected, vote in Congress for publicly funded elections and for fixing Citizens United by constitutional amendment or (in the case of Senate candidates) by confirming Supreme Court nominees who have an understanding of the Constitution that would lead them to reverse the Citizens United decision?

How can citizens tell if candidates are “for real” or just posers?

Promises won’t do.  Once a candidate is elected to Congress, lobbyists and others will gladly make payments to the new representative’s re-election campaign because he or she has something the monied self-interests want:  their vote in Congress.  This corrupt campaign funding system practically guarantees that most incumbents will be able to raise so much campaign cash for their re-election committee that nobody back home, in their party or the other party, will mount a serious challenge to them in the next election.

If the former candidate (now the incumbent) votes to pass publicly funded elections, he or she will be creating for themselves a situation where they will likely face a competitively funded challenger in the next election, the kind of opponent that most incumbents rarely face now.  And fixing Citizens United will mean that an incumbent will not be able to count on their party’s gang of self-interested sugar-daddies to spend huge amounts of money to save the incumbent, if they ever do have a close election.

Incumbents like being in Congress and want to stay there.  The current corrupt system allows them to do that.  So, from a self-interested point of view, it is smart for a candidate to say they want to end money-in-politics corruption but stupid for an incumbent to actually do it.

I believe there are candidates and incumbents who put the interests of our country ahead of their own interests and would vote to fix the corruption problem, even if it meant that they would lose their jobs.  But, how can we citizens, who want to fix the money-in-politics corruption problem, identify and support candidates who are true Reform Candidates and not just “posers”?

We need to judge the candidates on what they do, not on what they say.

The Behaviors of a Reform Candidate:

•  Has become a co-sponsor of publicly funded elections or pledges (when elected) to become a co-sponsor.

•  Has become a co-sponsor of amendments to reverse Citizens United or pledges, (when elected) to become a co-sponsor.

•  If a U.S. Senate candidate:  has agreed to confirm the Supreme Court nomination of only those nominees whose understanding of the Constitution would lead them to reverse the Citizens United decision.  (See: Senate Candidates:  Are You Ready to Fix Citizens United?)

•  Contributes money from his or her political accounts only to candidates who are themselves Reform Candidates.

•  Contributes money from his or her political accounts only to organizations that support only Reform Candidates.

•  Posts and maintains on the “Issues” page of his or her campaign website (and, if an incumbent, also on his or her official website) statements that he or she is engaging in the above actions.

Engaging in these actions isn’t simply evidence of the candidate’s sincerity, it also serves to advance the reform effort.  These actions educate citizens that there are, in fact, solutions to the money-in-politics problem and that both elected officials and citizens need to be active in making reform happen.  Right now, the great majority of the Congressional co-sponsors of public funding of elections bills and of resolutions to overturn Citizens United say nothing at all on their websites about the money-in-politics problem or solutions.

Campaign contributions from incumbents in safe districts are a major source of campaign money for candidates in competitive districts.  (See: Incumbents are Big Campaign Funders.)  Incumbents in safe districts need to behave like Reform Candidates and contribute only to fellow Reform Candidates.

Similarly, incumbents should not give money to their party if their party is funding anti-reform candidates.  Citizens and incumbents alike need to insist that their party become “The Party of Reform” and not serve as a slush fund for self-interested mega-donors.

After all, what is the use of electing a “reform” candidate to a safe seat in Congress only to see that candidate use their position to raise money and pass that money on to other candidates and organizations who are OPPONENTS OF REFORM? 

Actions, not words, are the measure of the reformer.  A candidate who sends us fundraising emails that play on our genuine, deep desire to restore a healthy democracy but who doesn’t have the courage to take the baby step of mentioning money-in-politics reform on his or her website is cynical, insincere, and untrustworthy.

A person like this, once elected, will be part of the money-in-politics problem, not part of the solution.

Senate Candidates:  Are You Ready to Fix Citizens United?

Reversing Citizens United and establishing publicly funded elections are essential reforms if we, the citizens, are going to regain political power in our country.

The quickest way to fix Citizens United is for the next President to appoint a Supreme Court justice who will vote to overturn Citizens United.  Four of the current Justices are near or over 80 years old and it is extremely likely that the next President will appoint at least one new Justice and one may be enough to reverse the 5-4 Citizens United decision.

Presidential candidates Clinton and Sanders have both posted statements on their websites in support of publicly funded elections and about their commitment to appoint Supreme Court Justices who will overturn Citizens United.  (See statements below.)

The United States Senate also has an extremely important role in the appointment of Justices to the Supreme Court.  So, we really need to see website statements by our Pennsylvania Senate candidates, too!   

Katie McGinty, John Fetterman,  Joe Sestak, and Pat Toomey, as of today (1/14/16), have not posted any statements about ending money-in-politics corruption on the “Issues” page of their websites.

Citizens want to know:

1. Will each of them require Supreme Court nominees who seek their confirmation vote to commit to overturning the Citizens United decision?

2.  Will each of them vote to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United?

3.  Will each join with the Presidential candidates and support publicly funded elections for Congress and President?

These presidential candidates recognize the importance of ending legalized corruption in our democracy and they have the courage to say so.  Do our Senate candidates?

We really need to see each of them state their commitments on the “Issues” pages of their campaign websites.


From Sanders’ website:


Only appoint Supreme Court justices who will make it a priority to overturn Citizens United and who understand that corruption in politics means more than just quid pro quo.

Fight to pass a constitutional amendment making it clear that Congress and the states have the power to regulate money in elections. I have been a proud sponsor and leading champion of such an amendment in the Senate.

Fight for a publicly financed, transparent system of campaign financing that amplifies small donations, along the lines of the Fair Elections Now Act that I have been pleased to co-sponsor, and an effective public financing system for president.

From Clinton’s website:

Overturn Citizens United. Hillary will appoint Supreme Court justices who value the right to vote over the right of billionaires to buy elections. She’ll push for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United in order to restore the role of everyday voters in elections.

Amplify the voices of everyday Americans. Hillary will establish a small-donor matching system for presidential and congressional elections to incentivize small donors to participate in elections, and encourage candidates to spend more time engaging a representative cross-section of voters.

Your Democratic Incumbent: Reformer or Just Another Flavor of Sugar Daddy?

by Frank Kirkwood

This recent story in the Hartford Courant about Congressman John Larson of Connecticut offers insight into a very important but largely invisible role that members of Congress play: campaign financier.

Larson is a safe incumbent Democrat, that is, he represents a district heavy with Democratic voters. He is accustomed to facing no financially competitive opponent in either the primary or the general election. He vastly outspends all of his opponents and wins by wide margins. Around 90% of incumbent members of Congress, in both parties, are in safe districts.

Safe incumbents of both parties are on the receiving end of a lot of PAC money and other money from people who want something from the government. These safe incumbents usually don’t need to spend very much on their own re-election so they have a surplus. Their parties expect them to spend this surplus to help elect congressional candidates in competitive districts elsewhere. Safe incumbents in both parties are expected to do this and are rewarded with positions of power within the party for doing so. As the article points out, neither party wants to stop if the other is going to continue.

According to the FEC reports, in the 2014 election cycle, Larson’s main campaign committee (Larson for Congress) and the leadership political action committee he controls (Synergy PAC), together sent around $475,000 to Democratic candidates and Democratic Party committees around the country.

At the same time, Congressman Larson is a high profile money-in-politics reformer. He has served as Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus Task Force on Election Reform. He is a co-sponsor of the Government by the People Act (a public funding of elections bill) and a co-sponsor of H.J.Res.22 (to amend the Constitution to remedy the Citizens United decision). Larson was the prime sponsor of a public funding of elections bill in an earlier Congress.

How does he square spending large amounts of money to influence the outcomes of elections in far away congressional districts and, at the same time, holding a central role in reforming our corrupt pay-to-play system? From the article, “ ‘I recognize the contradictions and the hypocrisy of it,’ Larson said this week. ‘Of course it bothers me. … But if you don’t participate, how does that help us regain the majority?’ ”

The article also notes that, “Larson and others say that, unless Democrats retake control of the House and Senate, serious political financing reform will be impossible.”

My view is that the reforms needed to shift political power in our country from the few to the many will still be impossible after the Democrats regain control of the House and Senate, unless we citizens organize ourselves in our congressional districts to pressure our safe Democratic incumbents to pass publicly funded elections and a remedy to Citizens United. As I argue elsewhere, many incumbents in safe Democratic districts have plenty of reasons to say they support these reforms but even more reasons to make sure the reforms never pass.

The reality is that once we have publicly funded elections, safe incumbents of both parties will likely face a financially competitive challenger from their own party in the primary election. Six months later, they may face a financially competitive challenger from the other party in the general election. Eighteen months after that, they would once again face a financially competitive challenger in the next primary. Incumbents who have broad and deep public support in their district would probably not face challengers at every election but ineffective representatives may well face a continuous series of challenges. So, looking at it from an incumbent’s point of view, we reformers are asking them to vote to replace the current system, one that all but guarantees their easy re-election, with a public-funding system that might require them to face repeated challenges. It is easy to see how an incumbent’s personal interest in keeping his or her job would be in conflict with the public’s interest in reforming the system.

This is not to say that Congressman Larson is insincere. His consistent vocal support of pro-democracy legislation over the years should make us confident that he will do the right thing when the time comes for Congress to pass publicly funded elections. He is one of only handful of congressional co-sponsors of the public funding of elections bill and of the resolution to reverse Citizens United who have demonstrated leadership on these issues by using their official and campaign websites to educate and advocate for these reforms.

But, I have no confidence at all that many of the other 170+ Democratic incumbents who claim to be reformers will set aside their personal interests and actually vote for real reform . My recent review of the websites of Democratic incumbents who have co-sponsored reform bills, showed that the overwhelming majority say nothing at all about these money-in-politics solutions on their websites. In my estimation, their silence demonstrates, not just a lack of leadership, but a lack of sincerity.

So, how do sincere safe Democratic incumbents demonstrate their sincerity and advance reform? They could start by “outing” themselves and post their support for reform on their websites. But they can do even more in their role as campaign financier.

It is true that Congressman Larson and his Democratic colleagues need to fund the campaigns of other Democrats if the Democrats are regain the majority. But does putting the Democrats in charge of Congress get us any closer to passing real money-in-politics reform? It didn’t last time the Democrats were in control and, unless something changes, it won’t next time either.

Here is what needs to change: safe incumbents need to act now to make the Democratic Party what many people already mistakenly imagine it to be: the party of reform. Larson and other sincere supporters of reform need to insist that the money spent by their campaign committees and their leadership PACs be spent on candidates who are themselves supporters of real reform. They need to spend their money with organizations that are committed to publicly funded elections and to the reversal of Citizens United. This includes, most importantly, the Democratic Party and its various campaign committees.

Safe Democratic incumbents who finance congressional candidates who are Democrats, but who are not reformers, are just another flavor of sugar daddy. That is, they become self-interested, anti-democratic financiers trying to advance their personal ambitions by using large amounts of money to manipulate the outcomes of elections. Like all sugar daddies, they seek to make members of Congress dependent on, indebted to, and attentive to the financier’s interests. They degrade our democracy by inserting themselves between an elected representative and the citizens who need that man or woman to represent them, not the financier.

They become the very thing we must be rid of.

Safe Democratic incumbents must use their role as campaign financiers to promote reform. They can make the best of this bad situation by funding only reform candidates and by insisting that the Democratic Party do the same. If they are sincere reformers they can demonstrate it by becoming part of the solution rather than making the problem worse.

Taking One for the Team?

Here is an update on state-level campaign finance legislation around the country by way of CleanSlateNow.  The story from Oregon is particularly galling.  There, the Democratic Senate leadership refused to let the Senate vote on putting a constitutional amendment to limit campaign contributions on the ballot for the Oregon’s voters to decide.  Reformers thought they had the votes to pass the Senate and the House until Democratic leaders in the Senate killed the whole thing.

I wonder if it really would have passed.  It could be that an arrangement had been made whereby many of these legislators could say they supported the reform knowing that, in the end, leadership would kill it.   That way, leadership “takes one for the team” and all the rest of the legislators stay in the good graces of reformers and the voters, too.  Could be.

As discussed in Our Political Revolution, party leadership is often at the center of the money-for-power economy within legislatures.

This Oregon business reminds me of the Fair Elections Now Act of 2010.