Dan Morain

From left and right, John Sarbanes and Walter Jones tilt at big money

Video: Rep. John Sarbanes wants to limit power of big money in politics

On a San Francisco visit, Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, acknowledged the power of money in politics and explained his legislation to empower people who donate small amounts of money to candidates. Republican Walter Jones of North Caroli
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On a San Francisco visit, Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, acknowledged the power of money in politics and explained his legislation to empower people who donate small amounts of money to candidates. Republican Walter Jones of North Caroli

If you didn’t know better, you might conclude that Rep. Walter Jones is feeling The Bern.

“Money creates greed, and greed creates corruption,” Jones says, sounding like the democratic socialist presidential candidate.

“Money drives policy” in Congress. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing for unlimited corporate contributions has taken the influence of money to “a whole new level.”

Nobody’s dewy-eyed lefty, Jones is the son of a former congressional member, and a 20-year House veteran from North Carolina who scored a deeply red 91 percent rating from the severely conservative Heritage Action political operation.

“I am just incensed about the influence of money on policy. I see it every day,” Jones said by phone.

Jones is bonding with another son of a former congressman, Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, in a crusade for legislation that seeks to blunt the power of big money in politics. Sarbanes visited San Francisco last month to discuss his idea, the Government by the People Act, H.R. 20, with some of the city’s liberal elite.

“This gives the everyday person a chance to get involved. That’s the key,” he said of his legislation at a North Beach coffee shop where we met.

Sarbanes did some basic political math for me. Contested congressional races easily cost $2 million. No self-respecting politician can afford to show up at a K Street fundraiser for a few thousand dollars.

So here’s his notion: Use tax money to provide a six-to-one match for every contribution of $150 or less, meaning a $150 donation becomes $900. As a sweetener, small donors would receive tax credits of, say, $25.

Imagine 35 people gathering at a neighbor’s home, each giving $50. With matching funds, that would add up to $10,500. Do five of those events, and 175 people donate a combined $52,500.

Politicians suddenly would find it worthwhile to spend time in backyards with real voters, rather than in rarefied high-rises with big shots. More importantly, the candidate would have made connections with people who would be willing to knock on doors and help work phone banks, something K Street swells never would do.

“This will bring everyday people out of the bleachers onto the field,” Sarbanes said.

A Democrat in a House controlled by Republicans, Sarbanes doesn’t have a great deal of clout. He has, however, amassed 155 Democratic co-sponsors, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and one Republican, Jones. Jones acknowledges the bill never will see the muted light of a congressional committee hearing room. Yes, they’re tilting.

But on Wednesday, they could be forgiven for feeling ever so slightly optimistic based on election returns. In Seattle and Maine, voters approved campaign finance measures that seek to empower small donors.

In Seattle, 60 percent of the voters approved a property tax levy to provide “democracy vouchers” worth $100 to every registered voter in the city, to be spent supporting candidates of their choice, if those candidates agree to contribution and spending caps. On his West Coast trip last month, Sarbanes visited Seattle to campaign for the measure, I-122.

“It sends a very powerful message that people are taking every opportunity given to them to take back their government,” Sarbanes said by phone Wednesday morning. “If it can be done in these places, why can’t it be done in Washington?”

Sarbanes hears disaffection from Democratic voters. Jones hears anger from Republican voters. Both congressmen know that cynicism is becoming ever more deeply embedded in the electorate, left and right.

Here’s Jones: “The American people need to take back the government. Money controls too much.”

Here’s Sarbanes: “People are angry and frustrated, and they look for more extreme solutions. ... Demagogues get more traction.”

Here we are, in a state where the oil industry spent $11 million to kill legislation to restrict petroleum use, and where contested campaigns for Assembly and Senate offices regularly cost $5 million or more.

Citizens United is the law of the land, and nothing can stop large corporations and billionaires from spending their millions to elect and unelect politicians. I don’t love everything about Sarbanes’ bill, and campaign finance experts were quick to cite loopholes in Seattle’s measure.

But Sarbanes, Jones and backers of the measures approved on Tuesday reflect what many of us feel – that political spending is out of control. They also are correct about the gist: The one certain way to counter big money is to democratize contributions with small money.