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Big Money in Politics

Big Money in Politics

One person, one vote—it is a basic principle that defines American democracy. Whether it is in the ballot booth or before the courts, we believe in the fundamental premise of equality before the law. And while Americans cherish strong protections for every person’s pursuit of happiness (including wealth), we also believe that access to wealth should not determine who runs for office, who wins elections, and what policies are prioritized by our elected representatives.

Election Day is fast approaching and voters across the country are feeling discouraged by the prospects. And they should. The post-Citizens United political landscape is more favorable to wealthy special interests than ever. In 2012, federal candidates received most of the funds they raised from less than 1 percent of the population. And the problem is only getting worse. These 2014 midterms are poised to be the most expensive midterms in history. As an increasingly small number of people pour a growing amount of money into campaigns, the issues that concern this small group receive more attention in Congress than the issues and priorities of regular folks like you and me.

If the 2012 election was categorized as the “super PAC election,” the 2014 midterms will be the “dark money election.” Of the almost $4 billion that will be spent this election cycle, nearly $900 million will come from outside groups like super PACs and 527s. Spending by groups that hide the identity of their donors will likely surpass $140 million. That’s enough to pay for 10,000 California residents to attend the University of California campus of their choice. Without information about who is behind dark money groups like “Patriot Majority” or “American Action Network,” it is nearly impossible for voters to determine whose priorities these groups represent.

When large donors dominate campaign fundraising, we all pay the price. For example, the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sector has dumped more money into federal elections than any other industry – a fact that has remained constant for the past 16 years. In the first six months of the 2014 election cycle, FIRE had already dumped a whopping $333 million into campaigns. The price we paid for big money contributions from Wall Street was weakened banking rules which led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis. By the end of 2007, a full 25% of foreclosures were in California. Homeowners saw property values decline by $1.2 trillion and more than 500,000 fewer jobs were created as a result.

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It is no coincidence that as income inequality threatens the foundation of our economy, our democracy is being taken away from the 99 percent of Americans without deep pockets.

But the FIRE industry’s clout continues unabated. When the House of Representatives considered a 2013 bill to weaken banking regulations, co-sponsors of the bill received 16 times the funds from banks than other members. Sadly, the banking industry’s big money contributions bought influence while the sub-prime mortgage crisis devastated California homeowners and contributed to the global recession.

The story with the student loan lobby is just as dramatic. In 2012, Wall Street institutions spent more than $100 million to influence congressional elections – nearly double what they’d spent in 2010 prior to the Citizens United ruling. Senators who voted against Senator Warren’s bill that would have allowed people to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates received 58% more money from financial institutions than Senators who voted for it.

It is no coincidence that as income inequality threatens the foundation of our economy, our democracy is being taken away from the 99 percent of Americans without deep pockets. But we haven’t lost hope. In order to change the way Congress works, we have to change the way they fundraise. California Common Cause and its members are standing up and fighting back with a proactive solution with the potential to shake things up.

HR 20, the Government By the People Act, would combat the influence of big money in politics, raise civic engagement, and amplify the voice of everyday Americans. Through a powerful combination of tax credits and matching funds, this bill has the power to curb the influence of special interest money and level the playing field so that more voters, regardless of income, can have a say in our democracy.

As a progressive advocate, I’m committed to fighting for cleaner elections and a more representative democracy. Join me in this fight by telling Congress our democracy should be owned “By the People,” not by special interests. Sign and share our petition at cmnca.us/PriceWePay today and go vote on Tuesday, November 4th. Because together, we can save our democracy.

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Leila Pedersen
Common Cause