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.

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