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Sarbanes wants to encourage grassroots funding of campaigns

Money's influence on politics has long been a problem, one that politicians needing cash to fund their campaigns have not had much incentive to solve.

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Towson Democrat who represents part of Howard County, is hoping to change that.

Sarbanes introduced a bill in Congress on Sept. 14 aimed at encouraging politicians to choose to use grassroots donations, not special interests, to fund their campaigns.

Since filing the Grassroots Democracy Act of 2012, Sarbanes has been trying to promote it during various speaking engagements and interviews — including last week when he spoke to the Howard County Chapter of Active and Retired Federal Employees at their monthly meeting in Columbia.

In the House of Representatives, where politicians have to run for re-election every two years, the average cost of a winning campaign is $1.3 million, Sarbanes said.

"There is only one way to raise it in the current environment and that is go to the special interests," he said.

Citizens, Sarbanes said, reasonably expect that they should be able to participate in the political process, and one way to do that is through campaign contributions.

"The problem is that participation seems to be dominated these days by a small group of people who have a lot of money," he said.

In addition, Sarbanes said, citizens should reasonably expect that the representatives they elected to go to Washington will represent their interests once they get there. But many times, he said, the representatives end up representing the special interests that funded their campaigns.

"It's not like members of Congress, most of them want to do it that way," Sarbanes said. "They have no choice."

The answer to this problem, he suggested, is creating a new paradigm for funding campaigns, one that empowers grassroots donors and stifles special interests. Sarbanes introduced the Grassroots Democracy Act to do just that.

The bill, he said, includes three main pieces.

The first piece is a refundable tax credit — up to $25 for single tax filers and $50 for joint filers — for donations of $200 or less to Congressional campaigns.

"The idea of the tax credit is to create an incentive to encourage people to broadly participate," Sarbanes said.

The second piece involves increasing the power of grassroots donations. If a Congressional candidate chooses not to take any money from Political Action Committees and raises at least $50,000 ($200,000 plus $25,000 for each Congressional district in the state for Senate candidates) from 2,000 individuals (2,000 plus 500 individuals for each Congressional district in the state for Senate candidates) contributing between $5 and $100, they will qualify for up to a 1,000 percent matching contribution.

"If a Super PAC comes into the mix, we'll allow that candidate to go get some additional dollars to support their campaign," Sarbanes said.

That third piece would be funded with dollars from individuals who provide contributions to the Grassroots Democracy Fund that would be created under the proposal.

Super PACs have become increasingly powerful. Their influence helped several new candidates beat out incumbents in the 2010 election, and it is expected Super PACs will play a role in the outcome of many races this November.

"Here comes a super PAC and that's it; you're finished," he said. And that happened to a lot of my colleagues by the way."

Passage a long shot

Sarbanes said he doesn't expect the bill, which has 38 Democratic co-sponsors in the House, to get much traction until after the election. But he's hoping it will attract some interest after November.

"The average member of Congress is now spending 30 to 70 percent of their time fundraising," Sarbanes said, noting that time leaves representatives "highly distracted" from the job they were sent to Washington to do.

A representative from Democracy 21, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes campaign finance reform in the interest of eliminating undue influence of big money in American politics, was not immediately available for comment, but the group endorsed a similar campaign finance bill, of which Sarbanes is a co-sponsor.

Like Sarbanes' Grassroots Democracy Act, the Empowering Citizens Act, introduced Sept. 20 by U.S. Reps. Chris Van Hollen, a Kensington Democrat, and David Price, a North Carolina Democrat, would creating a matching fund system for candidates raising money through small, grassroots donations.

"By empowering small donors, the act will dilute the role and importance of influence-seeking money, reduce the opportunities for government corruption and provide candidates with an alternative way to finance their campaigns without having to sell their souls to their funders," Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said in a statement.

However, the outlook for either bill in the Republican-controlled House does not look good.

Sarbanes's bill has a 3 percent chance of being enacted (Van Hollen's and Price's bill has a 0 percent chance), according to GovTrack.us, a legislative tracking tool operated by Civic Impulse LLC, a Washington-based organization that build tools to foster civic participation, education and government transparency.

Still, Sarbanes remains hopeful.

"We can continue to have a system where campaigns are underwritten by the special interests and the big money," Sarbanes said. "And when it comes time to make policy, that's where we'll turn."

Or, he said, politicians can restore power to their constituents and allow the community to have the influence.

"All I'm saying is why not," Sarbanes said. "Why not create an option, so if I want to try to do it a different way, there's a way to do it."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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