A plan to take on the super PACs

Dan Rodricks on John Sarbanes' idea for countering fat-cat financing of campaigns with grass-roots donations

January 11, 2012|Dan Rodricks

Will Maryland voters see super PAC money spent here to influence the outcome of an election in 2012? If a certain congressional race gets close — say, the general election in the reshaped Sixth District — it's possible, even likely. Only two of the state's eight House seats are Republican. With the new Sixth in danger of slipping to the Democrats, some fat-cat super PAC might decide to throw money into advertising on behalf of the Republican candidate. Vice-versa if the Democrat needs an edge.

It's the new X Factor in American politics, unleashed by the Supreme Court. ("Corporations are people, too.")

I suppose a super PAC, with no restrictions on what it can spend on behalf of (or against) a candidate or cause, could try in some way to influence the outcome of the Maryland referendum on the Dream Act — or, if it plays out as predicted by many, a ballot question about same-sex marriage. Super PAC-financed advertising could appear right up to Election Day, too. Anything seems possible in the frothy green wake of the Supreme Court's January 2010 decision in the Citizens United case. The decision struck down limits on corporate- or union-funded political ads immediately before federal elections, and many legal scholars believe the ruling invalidates similar laws in 24 states.

The whole thing should give all Americans — from tea partier to Wall Street occupier — the creeps.

So here comes John Sarbanes, a Democrat with a safe seat in the House, to offer something to counter the new X Factor. You might call it the G Force, as in grass roots.

Mr. Sarbanes, who represents Maryland's Third District (parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties) and who already has plenty of money in his campaign treasury, is conducting an experiment. He wants to establish a network of small contributors who, when needed, can be Tweeted and mustered as a political army to neutralize the impact of a super PAC.

His model runs close to that of federal legislation, the Fair Elections Now Act, to establish public financing for political candidates who show they've made a serious effort to collect "little people" money — that is, contributions at the $25 or $50 level from hundreds of supporters.

So here's the deal, as Mr. Sarbanes described it Monday on my radio show:

Last year, he asked supporters for hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, but he promised to set the money aside in two separate "challenge" funds and not touch it unless he first reached certain benchmarks in grass-roots fundraising.

If, this year, he collects $100 or less from 1,000 donors, he gets to use a $500,000 "challenge fund" that his supporters established. If he raises another $50,000 the hard way, he gets to use another $250,000 "challenge" fund.

The challenge money can’t be touched unless the grass-roots benchmarks are reached. If he leaves office before that happens, the money is returned.

Because Mr. Sarbanes is a co-sponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act, he established this grass-roots donor project to follow what the act calls for: rewarding politicians for their efforts to raise donations from the bottom up instead of the top down. Mr. Sarbanes says Fair Elections Now is unlikely to become law any time soon, but he's put his grass-roots project in place to show that it could work.

Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard legal scholar and cyber-freedom activist, calls the Sarbanes project "ingenious."

It's certainly admirable, and it presents an ideal.

But is it a counterweight to one billionaire writing a check for $5 million so a super PAC can run attack ads?

Mr. Sarbanes thinks so. Once they make an affordable donation, he says, grass-roots donors feel empowered and will open their wallets when they feel their candidate or cause is threatened by big money.

Mr. Sarbanes' populist scheme has a price tag. It turns on having a public fund from which candidates can draw when they hit their grass-roots goals. The Fair Elections Now Act calls for up to $850 million in annual funding, and while the first tendency may be to dismiss any proposal that calls for more public financing of elections, you've got to remember, this is the post-Citizens United world now; we're just starting to see the monster created by the Supreme Court ruling in that case. In John Sarbanes' ideal, the G Force takes on the X Factor, and the good guys eventually win. I'd pay to see that.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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