PORTLAND, Maine - The need for campaign finance reform has never been more urgent, according to Congressman John Sarbanes. The Maryland Democrat met Wednesday with supporters in Portland who are promoting a November state ballot question they say will help taxpayer-financed candidates compete with their privately-funded opponents.
And Sarbanes says his own "Government By the People" bill has already attracted more than 140 co-sponsors from both parties. Sarbanes wants Americans to start looking at national campaign reform a little differently. Instead of viewing Congress as an institution, he says voters would be better served by considering it a commodity.
"What it really comes down to, conceptually, is this idea of somebody's going to own the government," Sarbanes says.
Under current law, Sarbanes says that "somebody" could be wealthy private interests that channel huge amounts of money to congressional campaigns and powerful political action committees. And, he says, that process produces a Congress that listens more intently to its donors than its voters.
To illustrate the influence of lobbyists, he creates an image of a newly-elected congressman who boards a train for Washington carrying a box filled with the ballots from the recently-won race.
"Somewhere along the way on this journey to Washington, those lobbyists get on the train and they take that ballot box and they put it on the floor next to them. And they sit next to the candidate who is bringing that ballot box with him to present to the sergeant of arms and say, 'I deserve to be here, I represent the people.' And they take that ballot box and they put it on the floor. They sit it down next to the seat of that candidate and say, 'We'll take it from here,' " Sarbanes said.
Under Sarbanes' bill, U.S. House candidates could chose to limit contributions to their campaigns to no more than $1,000. Then for each contribution of $150 or less from a district voter, the candidate would receive public funds at a 6-to-1 ratio. Candidates would not be able to accept political action committees contributions, unless the PACs raised their money in contributions of $150 or less.
Sarbanes bill would provide additional funds for candidates who could raise at least $50,000 in small donations during the last 60 days of the campaign cycle, and would also provide every American with a $25 refundable tax credit to spur small campaign donations.
"And we did this because we realize that in a world where our Supreme Court has declared that money is speech, we had to find a way to make sure that people of modest means have speech," Sarbanes said. "So the $25 refundable tax credit is a critical component in terms of bringing more Americans onto the funding side of the equation."
Any method of public campaign financing that incentivises small donor contributions is worth pursuing, according to Peter Mills, the executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, and a long-time supporter and participant of Maine's Clean Elections System.
"There is something to be said for a bit-sized democracy that is for taking things on in small doses, focusing on them, getting them passed and then moving on to the next stage -- there's power in that," Mills said.
Mills, who served as a Republican in the Legislature, was among those attending a roundtable discussion on campaign spending with Sarbanes at the University of Southern Maine. He and other panelists say the congressman's national approach compliments a paroposal on the state ballot this fall that beefs up disclosure requirements under Maine's public campaign finance law, and also provides more money - $1 million - to the Clean Elections Fund.
Jill Ward, president of the League of Women Voters of Maine, says while some voters may be cynical about efforts to limit the influence of big money in politics, she believes Mainers are hungry for change.
"In my conversations I am encountering that level of cynicism, but also people want to find a way out of it," Ward said. "They don't want to give up on this idea that when they go to the polls, they're a meaningful participant in what's going on in the community and the state and the country."
After the morning meeting at USM, Congressman Sarbanes and Maine Clean Elections advocates headed Downeast to Bar Harbor for a second roundtable discussion.