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Restoring people's faith in government

Sarbanes: Setting up a small-donor fundraising system could compete with today's big-money politics.

In Maryland and across the country, Americans are growing deeply cynical about Washington. And for good reason. They perceive that policymaking is increasingly an insider's game, with little role for the public itself. They feel that their voices go unheard in Congress. And they see, time and time again, how the issues they care about most — like creating good jobs, strengthening small business and protecting the environment — are blocked by special interests.

It's little surprise that a record number of Americans stayed home from the polls last November — the lowest voter turnout since 1942.

The reality is that powerful industries and interest groups have used their wealth to amass unprecedented political power. With so many lawmakers dependent on these sources of campaign funding, the institution of Congress too often leans in their direction and away from the priorities of everyday citizens. Convinced that their vote — and their voice — doesn't matter, millions of Americans are exiting the political town square. Extreme elements then rush in to fill the vacuum and the discourse becomes even more hard-edged and alienating.

With Americans fast losing confidence in our democracy, it's time to ring the alarm bells and launch a creative and sustained push to restore the public's faith in government.

One path is to expand access to the polls and do more to encourage voting. That's the reason to restore Section V of the Voting Rights Act, which was struck down by the Supreme Court last year. But we need to do more. As important as it is to protect access to the ballot box, we must also ensure that the ballot box arrives safely in Washington. That means curbing the influence of lobbyists and deep-pocketed donors who seek to hijack it along the way.

We can do this by setting up a small-donor fundraising system that can compete with today's big-money politics. I am proud to have authored the Government By the People Act (H.R.20), which would allow candidates to turn away from the current donor class of PACs and lobbyists and power their campaigns with a combination of small donations and public matching funds. It would reward candidates who build strong ties to their communities and work actively to engage the citizenry. A small-donor matching system would also reinvigorate our democracy by empowering a more diverse pool of candidates who would have the resources to run, compete and win.

Just imagine your representative in Washington standing in your living room, listening to your priorities and making policy decisions that benefit you — all because your voice matters. That's the promise of a small-donor matching system.

In Maryland, public financing is already an option for gubernatorial candidates. And this week, Maryland legislators voted overwhelmingly for a bill to restore a tax check off box that will help restock our state's public financing fund. Moreover, last fall the Montgomery County Council passed legislation that will allow candidates for County Council and county executive to qualify for public financing.

By combining these kinds of efforts at the state and local levels with the Government By the People Act, Americans can fight big-money politics, restore their faith in Washington and return to a government of, by and for the people.

Congressman John Sarbanes represents Maryland's Third Congressional District. He can be reached at sarbanes.house.gov/contact.

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