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Democratic Candidates: All Talk, Or Real Action to Get Big Money Out of Politics?

Allie Boldt

The second democratic debate is approaching on Saturday, and the American people want to know: if elected, what will the candidates do to get big money out of our democracy? In a recent WSJ/NBC poll, 69% of respondents said they “feel angry because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington, rather than working to help everyday people get ahead.”  This sentiment is backed up by research showing that when the preferences of the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans conflict with that of the rest of the population, the 10 percent trumps the 90 percent.

Last week, voters in Seattle and Maine took matters into their own hands, passing stronger campaign finance disclosure rules and public financing provisions. Seattle even passed a first-of-its-kind program, which gives every voter the chance to invest in the candidates he or she supports through a voucher. These victories show not only that Americans urgently want a democracy that works for everyday people, but also that change through policy is possible.

All of the Democratic presidential candidates have acknowledged the problem of big money in politics. But acknowledging the problem is the easy part. In the 2008 Democratic primaries, Barack Obama also decried the domination of the agenda in Washington by special interests, explaining, “the American people are tired of a politics that’s dominated by the powerful, by the connected, they want their government back, and that’s what I intend to provide them when I’m nominated for president of the US.” As president, Obama has continued to decry the influence of money in politics. But in spite of these good intentions, big money interests have continued to dominate our elections and in turn, our national agenda. Obama has not even committed to signing an Executive Order that would require government contractors to disclose their political spending.

We need our next president to do more than just talk the talk. Americans already know we have a big money problem. What we need to hear is what specific actions these candidates will commit to taking to get big money out of politics, and on what timeline. 

O’Malley has committed to establishing publicly financed congressional elections within five years if elected president. That’s great. What will he do in the first 100 days in office?

Clinton has made fixing a broken political system one of the four pillars of her campaign. But she hasn’t talked much about her platform, which calls for Supreme Court appointees who “value the right to vote over the right of billionaires to buy elections,” more disclosure of political donations, and a small-donor matching system for federal elections. All of these would be important steps toward a democracy of, by, and for the People, but we want to know more. Will she lay out her vision for campaign finance reform in the debate on Saturday? Will she commit to sending a public financing bill to Congress within her first 100 days in office? Within the first year? Does she endorse the Fighting Big Money, Empowering People Agenda put forth by a coalition of organizations committed to getting big money out of politics? Will she congratulate the people in Maine and Seattle for working to get big money out, and everyday Americans in? 

Sanders has been more vocal about the domination of our government by the “billionaire class,” but even less specific about what he would do to transform our democracy into one that is responsive to “we the People.” Like Clinton, Sanders calls for a Constitutional Amendment overturning Citizens United and for moving “toward public funding of elections.” But would Sanders appoint pro-democracy Supreme Court justices to undo the misguided precedent that blocks strict limits on spending and other reforms? What would Sanders’ public financing system look like, and can he commit to introducing it within his first 100 days in office? Within the first year? What would he do to facilitate the passage of a constitutional amendment? How would his proposed solutions elevate more candidates of color and working-class candidates who would represent the interests of their constituents and not just the donor class?

At Saturday’s debate, a simple question should be put to the candidates: what would you do in the first 100 days of your administration to fight big money in politics?