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Sarbanes Bill Aims to Draw in Small Donors

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Having road-tested a low-dollar fundraising system in his own congressional campaign, Maryland Democrat John Sarbanes wants the entire House to follow suit.  

Sarbanes rolls out legislation Wednesday aimed at spurring House candidates to raise money from small donors instead of from the traditional large contributors on Wall Street and K Street. Dubbed the Government By The People Act, the bill would give small donors a $25 refundable tax credit, and match contributions of $150 or less at a rate of six to one, among other provisions.  

“We need something that is about empowering the good actors, which are everyday people, and bringing them back to the town square,” said Sarbanes, whose legislation enjoys the backing of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and of more than two dozen environmental, labor and other progressive groups. Candidates who agree to collect only low-dollar contributions would receive a nine-to-one federal match, and those swamped by unrestricted last-minute spending would be eligible for additional federal funds.  

Sarbanes acknowledged that the legislation has little chance of passing this year, but said the time is right for advocates of a campaign finance overhaul to propose something major. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling to deregulate political spending has frustrated both average citizens and members of Congress, he argued.  

“I believe that members of Congress themselves, many of them are reaching a point of exhaustion with the current system,” said Sarbanes, noting that lawmakers spend hours on the phone every day dialing for dollars. “And they are more open to alternatives.”  

Progressive support for such legislation is also building, said Public Campaign President and CEO Nick Nyhart, because activists focused on issues besides campaign financing have become convinced that their agendas will be blocked as long as big money dominates elections.  

Organizers at the Sierra Club, the Communications Workers of America, and a long list of other groups backing the bill “are really ready to move in whole hog and educate their members, and mobilize their members on this issue,” said Nyhart. “And that’s what’s different.”  

In the previous election, Sarbanes created a matching funds experiment in his own campaign, asking traditional donors to create a half-million-dollar “challenge fund” that would not be released until he rounded up $50,000 in small checks from the grassroots. He met the target, and this time around has created a multiple-matching funds structure at the precinct level.  

The legislation builds on his own experience, Sarbanes said, and sets out to create an alternative fundraising system that is workable and that will allow candidates to focus on constituent interactions and house parties instead of on fundraising from big donors.  

He has broad Democratic support, he said, and is working to round up Republican co-sponsors. Republicans have long cast public financing schemes as “welfare for politicians,” and partisan divisions over campaign financing are even sharper today than during previous legislative battles over the issue.  

Still, Sarbanes is undeterred: “I think over time the interest in this issue, and the pressure that will come to members at the district level, will be felt on both sides of the aisle.”  



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