After seeing success in raising money for their own election campaigns, two members of Congress came to campus to rethink campaign finance.
During the discussion held last night — co-sponsored by the Yale College Democrats, the Democracy Fund and the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group — Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes and Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro condemned the influence of special interest groups and wealthy donors in politics. Both Democrats, Sarabanes and DeLauro were joined by New Haven Democracy Fund Chair Jared Milfred ’16, state Rep. Matt Lesser and the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group State Director Evan Preston to discuss how to combat the effect of “big money” on local and national politics and public policy.
“We need to find another place that members of Congress can turn to finance their campaigns,” said Sarbanes, who has represented Maryland’s third district since 2007. “The voices of everyday citizens are being pushed to the margins of their own democracy.”
Sarbanes proposed three approaches for curtailing the influence of money in politics: a constitutional amendment repealing the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, laws promoting the public disclosure of campaign donations, and the Government by the People Act, which matches small campaign donations on a six-to-one ratio if a candidate agrees to forego large donations.
The Government by the People Act, introduced to Congress by Sarbanes in February 2014, would also establish a $25 refundable tax credit to be used toward political campaigns.
DeLauro focused her attention on how large corporations negatively shape public policy. She cited the recent Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that she says was negotiated under secrecy and without the input of members of congress. The agreement, which DeLauro anticipates will soon pass Congress, was based on input from around 600 advisors, a majority of whom were representatives from corporations like WalMart, Halliburton and Verizon. Multinational corporations have had a significant role in crafting the trade agreement, a policy that is at the expense of workers, consumers and families, said DeLauro. She added that multinational organizations profit from free trade even if American workers suffer.
“Trade policy has become a chilling example of the power of big money in American political life,” DeLauro said.
She went on to say that corporations write the rules of international and domestic trade policies and ultimately sacrifice American jobs in order to lower their prices.
ConnPIRG is the state branch of a national organization that targets special interest groups who damage the health and well-being of consumers. The nonprofit organization advocates on behalf of voters on issues like food safety, public health and campaign finance reform.
While DeLauro criticized corporate influence on trade agreements, Preston said he was concerned primarily with protecting an individual voter’s influence in local elections. The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case led to substantial spending by super PACs and individuals and prevents Connecticut residents from having a voice in local politics, Preston said in an interview with the News. He added that in the 2012 presidential election, the top 32 SuperPAC donations to both candidates equaled the donations from four million individual citizens combined.
“The influence of money in politics affects every single issue of government,” Preston said. “We support a constitutional amendment and an overturning of the [Citizens United] ruling.”
Lesser, who serves as the vice chairman of the government administration and elections committee, said the availability of public campaign funding facilitated his election in 2008. He praised the Citizens’ Election Program that provides funding to candidates who both meet a threshold of individual donations from local residents and do not seek funding from SuperPACs.
Lesser said that despite the presence of SuperPACs and outside funding in state elections, Connecticut has a strong and robust system of campaign financing.
“If you’re spending your time talking to donors, you’re not spending your time talking to constituents,” Lesser added.
DeLauro has served in Congress since 1991. Her district includes the city of New Haven and its suburbs.