But, Sarbanes argues, if Congress passes H.R. 20, the Government By the People Act, that calculus changes. If a constituent can get 30 friends to each pledge $50, that’s $1,500. Then, with the 6-to-1 multiplier, that’s another $9,000, bringing the total up to $10,500. Plus, those K Street fundraisers don’t pay off in the same kinds of bonuses as house parties can. As Sarbanes explains, “If you do a K Street fundraiser, nobody goes and knocks on doors for you, and most of them probably can’t even vote for you. But if you do a house party, people can vote for you, and they can lick envelopes. So you’re matching up the organizing imperative with fundraising.”
H.R. 20 would do more than reduce influence of the special interests who attend those $1,000-a-plate fundraisers in Washington. It will also reduce the widespread political cynicism that Sarbanes contends is behind the recent 36 percent voter turnout rate in the 2014 midterm elections, the lowest level since 1942. “If we’re going to address the cynicism,” noted Sarbanes, “we need to design a solution that brings them out of the bleachers and into the ring, a solution that says they have power, they have voice. And that’s the empowerment strategy.”
Forging opportunity in the face of a post-Citizens United Congress fits in with a broader framework laid out by Mark Schmitt, the director of the Political Reform Program at New America in a new paper, Political Opportunity: A New Framework for Democratic Reform. According to Schmitt, it’s time to move beyond the obsession with corruption that has dominated thinking about campaign finance reform for years. Instead, America needs to think about campaign finance reform in the context of opportunity.
In Citizens United and the more recent McCutcheon v. FEC decision lifting aggregate limits on individual campaign contributions, the Supreme Court has defined corruption very narrowly as quid quo pro situations. The Court has also taken a very expansive view of the First Amendment, casting wide protections for political speech that include political spending. Rather than fight a battle to limit contributions that will pit campaign reformers against the First Amendment, Schmitt thinks they ought to focus on expanding participation.
“I don’t want to be in a fight with the First Amendment,” Schmitt said. “Thinking in political opportunity gets you out of a trap of where you are restricting the First Amendment.”
Instead, says Schmitt, reformers should be asking, “How do we make it easier for people to organize and to be heard?” He sees promise, for example, in technologies that reduce start-up costs for political organizing, like ActBlue and NationBuilder.
Over at the Federal Elections Commission, new chair Ann Ravel is also trying to dial up the levels of citizen-engagement. For years, the agency mostly did little but serve its “clients” (i.e., the two parties and their campaigns). But upon taking over as FEC chair in January 2015, Ravel decided to do something unprecedented. She set out on a “public listening tour” to get outside of Washington and talk to a wider community of Americans about what they thought about regulation of joint fundraising committees. The FEC is now processing 32,000 public comments it received on that question.