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.