In April, more than 1200 people, including ice cream magnates Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were arrested on Capitol Hill during massive rallies protesting the influence of big money in politics. It’s an issue Americans, who feel their voices are being drowned out, are becoming increasingly frustrated with.
MMore and more, Washington D.C. is starting to feel like a tale of two cities, one dysfunctional and antiquated, the other bursting with vitality.
Old Washington is the one most Americans think of: full of wheeling and dealing within the halls of power and unable to see beyond the next election cycle. It has been broken for years, in part due to skyrocketing amounts of money that dictates who runs for office, who wins and what policies they pursue in Congress.
New D.C. is where you live. It’s shaking off the cobwebs, thriving and full of fresh ideas. It has a burgeoning tech corridor, exploding real estate and culture to match, and its occupants are as adept at debating the tax code as they are at securing a table at Rose’s Luxury.
This is the city we know and love. But it’s Old Washington that 2016 presidential candidates deride in speeches and that voters want reformed.
The good news is that fresh approaches to fixing Old Washington are bubbling up that match the prospering spirit of New D.C. – full of both optimism and pragmatism – grounded by real solutions with public support aimed at reestablishing the democracy we fought a revolution to attain.
2016: THE WORST ELECTION YET?
By the time we cast our ballots in November, experts predict candidates and special interests will have spent nearly $10 billion attempting to influence our votes. Much of that money will come from shadowy outside groups, funded by a tiny portion of wealthy interests. The rest are hard money donations going directly to campaigns, from lobbyists, from PACs, from wealthy donors writing $2,700 checks to dozens of candidates. This is what makes Washington look so bad to so many, and foments the kind of cronyism that hobbles our economy and corrupts our government.
Voter alienation is palpable: 76 percent of both conservatives and liberals say money has a greater influence than ever before, according
to a recent Pew Research study. And a June 2015 New York Times/CBS News poll found that 85 percent of adults – including 81 percent of Republicans – want to see major reforms to how we fund campaigns. This public appetite for systemic change is giving rise to a new, growing movement of reformers pushing hard for those solutions.
THE NEW REFORM MOVEMENT
Perhaps the most novel feature of the new reform movement is its bipartisanship. Good governance is no longer the cause for stuffy liberals who agree with each other in an echo chamber.
Enter – from stage right – Tea Party activist John Pudner (architect of David Brat’s historic primary upset against Rep. Eric Cantor), who launched Take Back Our Republic dedicated to pushing money-in-politics solutions conservatives can get behind.
Take Back Our Republic believes that “individual participation in the American political system,” not new regulations, is the best way to strengthen our liberty. Which is why they’re pushing for tax rebates for small-dollar donations, and idea that’s also been endorsed by GeorgeW.Bush’s former ethics lawyer,Richard Painter. As he wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, it would “bring billions of small donations to political candidates, who would no longer depend on a tiny sliver of the population for the money they need to get elected.” Plus, it would allow candidates to spend less time dialing for dollars, which currently consumes half their time in office.
Though Take Back is initially concentrating on building grassroots support in the states, its goal is to help pass federal legislation to really change the dynamic in Old Washington.
Enter – from center stage – Issue One, a District-based nonprofit building an all- American movement by recruiting surprising new faces to the fight for reform. One example: the ReFormers Caucus, a group of more than 120 former elected officials from both parties who’ve personally seen how damaging money is to the political process and who are speaking out for solutions. It’s the largest bipartisan group of its kind speaking out for comprehensive campaign finance reform ever assembled. Currently, the ReFormers include former representatives, senators, governors, CIA directors and a vice president, as well as cabinet secretaries and ambassadors spanning the past five administrations.
There are plenty of solutions to our governing crisis that don’t involve the long march toward a constitutional amendment. From empowering small donors to passing common- sense lobbying rules to reforming watchdog agencies like the Federal Election Commission, these simple fixes would pass muster with even the current Supreme Court.
When Americans learn about these options, they like what they hear. So we wonder why candidates like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton haven’t mentioned them much.
For one, the Securities and Exchange Commission should pass a rule mandating all publicly traded companies disclose their political spending to shareholders. Not only have three former SEC chairmen, including Republican William Donaldson, urged the passage of this measure, but more than one million public comments were submitted to the agency, the most in its history.
Then there’s President Obama. With the stroke of the pen, he could approve an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political spending. If a company receives our tax dollars, we, the people, deserve to know how they’re using that money to influence our votes. This idea transcends partisanship. As former Republican governor from Utah and ReFormers Caucus member Jon Huntsman explained,“It’s about enhancing believability and trust in our institutions and public governance…Winners should always be based on merit and competition, and not on which company can dole out the most campaign contributions.”
A RISING ISSUE
It’s easy to be pessimistic about the ReFormers Caucus’ chances of success. After all, Washington cronies have a mountain of cash to spend and a Supreme Court that backs them up, even with the vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.
However, just 20 years ago, we would have been called naive to predict a resurgence for this town. Now, New D.C. is home to more than 1,000 tech start-ups. Young families are flooding in every day. It was named Forbes’ coolest city in 2014. All this, even as it has become a symbol for broken governance across the Western world.
In order to save Washington from itself, advocates from around the nation are matching the agility and innovative energy of New D.C., reaching across the aisle to find common ground and pitching straightforward proposals that all Americans can support.This movement is gathering momentum to restore a democracy where the consent of the voters is again needed to get things done.
Indeed, more than at any time in recent memory, voters are asking tough questions and demanding concrete answers from all candidates as to how both parties plan to restore our democracy so it works for everyone.
Presidential candidates and Congress would be wise to listen, for this issue isn’t going away. In fact, cleaning up the mess of money in politics would help bring the public image of the nation’s capital in line with the fresh and idealistic dynamism that it embodies at its best. And those in power should take a lesson from our civic history: Americans respect political authority when, and only when, it is derived from the consent of the governed.
As the new reform movement succeeds, we can look forward to a single city, our tale of two cities merging into one.
About the Authors:
Connie Morella served as a Republican member of Congress representing Maryland’s eighth congressional district from 1987-2003 and was the ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development from 2003-2007. She is a member of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus.
Mike Peabody is the president of Peabody Corporation, a Washington, D.C. real estate development corporation he established in 1975. Mike was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Equal Opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1969-1973. In 1968, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Republican. He serves on Issue One’s Board of Directors.
This article appeared in the May 2016 issue of Washington Life.