The current regulations governing the funding of federal campaigns disenfranchises and disillusions those eligible to vote, and fosters the view that our elected senators and representatives owe their loyalty to whatever special interest submits the highest bid.
When running for federal office, your first “primary” is usually the money primary, and that requires meetings in Washington to ensure sufficient funds to conduct a viable campaign. The 2016 U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire, where 755,850 voters went to the polls, saw more than $125 million dollars spent on behalf of the Republican and Democratic candidates. Almost all of that money came from special interests in Washington, D.C.
The most important committee assignments are parceled out to those who raise the most money for their respective party’s senate and congressional campaign committees and, to get those coveted seats, our representatives spend large parts of almost every day on the phone seeking contributions.
Newly elected senators and representatives arriving in Washington, in many cases having lent their campaigns significant amounts of money, are greeted by lobbyists only too willing to help eliminate their campaign debts and ready a war chest for the next campaign—assuming good behavior when the votes are cast.
When the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement was written, it was widely understood that the multi-thousand page agreement was largely written by lobbyists. Unhappily, this is not unusual and many bills are written either by, or with significant input from, lobbyists for special interests. It isn’t difficult to understand that aggregated million dollar contributions to lawmakers can ensure favorable treatment which return many times the amount donated. In exchange for an accommodating attitude, incumbent federal lawmakers, benefitting from generous campaign contributions from those they regulate, generally enjoy re-election rates better than 97 percent.
Happily, there is a better way: The Real Reform Amendment passed by the New Hampshire House of Representatives in February by a bipartisan vote of 211 to 75, seeks a U.S. Constitutional Amendment which would restrict political contributions to those eligible to vote in that federal election. Political Action Committees, independent expenditures, and any funding other than contributions from those eligible to vote in that primary and general election would be disallowed. Just like at the voting booth, if you aren’t eligible to vote in that federal jurisdiction you can’t influence that election. Eligible voters would be limited to the contribution limits set in each election cycle by the Federal Election Commission. In 2016, individual contributions to any one candidate were limited to $2,700 for the primary and an additional $2,700 for the general election.
The Real Reform Amendment, if adopted, would require federal candidates to raise their funds exclusively from their own constituents. Lobbyists could continue to visit senators and representatives and their staffs and offer opinions on bills under consideration. They could no longer be seen as a source of campaign contributions. Such a change would ensure that senators and representatives become far more accessible to their constituents. Senators and representatives would need to be seen in their state or district and would seek out opportunities to meet and speak directly to their constituents. Presidential candidates would also have to rely solely on individual donations within the same limits set for other federal elections by the Federal Election Commission.
The Real Reform Amendment addresses only federal elections. States would continue to establish their own laws regulating state campaigns.
It is important to note that the Real Reform Amendment favors no party or interest group. The only group it empowers is individual voters. Unlimited non-public communication and non-public endorsement would continue to be permitted between national organizations and their membership. Local affiliates of national organizations could publicly endorse and provide non-financial support to the candidate of their choice. An individual’s donated time would not be considered a contribution.
Finally, nothing in the Real Reform Amendment restricts the offering of opinions of the merits of individual candidates, political issues, or any other matter bearing on a campaign by any publicly accessible news organization or forum or restricts the offering of opinions by members of the general public.
Those supportive of the Real Reform Amendment should join the effort to ensure that every candidate for federal office is asked in a public forum for their opinion of the Real Reform Amendment. If they feign ignorance, explain it to them. Those who feel they have bought and paid for our political process and those who have been elected under the current system will not give up easily, so be prepared to ask repeatedly.
James W. McConnell is a New Hampshire State Representative