Today, most American politicians are “fundraisers first and legislators second,” which has numerous consequences (Sarbanes). Congressman John Sarbanes estimated that congressmen devote 30 to 70 percent of their time to fundraising -time that could be spent creating legislation and learning about policy issues (Lieu). Additionally, the unrestricted private campaign donations are undermining democracy, in a sense “buying the government,” while the people’s interests shift to the back seat. To reduce gridlock, we need our congress members time and energy devoted to legislation, and their votes dedicated to the people, not solely the Big Money minority. In accordance with the views of many grassroots leaders, I believe that we need a comprehensive overhaul of the election system. The first step is the reversal of Citizens United, a court case that led to the creation of super PAC’s when the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government cannot limit corporations (or unions, associations or individuals) from spending money to influence the outcome of elections (Liptak). The second step involves transferring power back to the people. As Lawrence Lessig, academic scholar and political activist, points out, “So long as elections cost money, we won’t end Congress’s dependence on its funders (Lessig).” Therefore, our second step must be to adopt a system of “small-dollar” public funding for congressional elections. In concordance with Lessig, I propose a $50 tax rebate that acts as a “democracy voucher.” People can give their voucher to any candidate of Congress, as long as that candidate agrees to only accept small contributions: vouchers or citizen donations capped at $100. Vouchers not used would pass back into the public funding system. There are numerous benefits from this type of system. Right off the bat, we have undermined the power of PAC contributions by making Congress members choose between big contributions or smaller voter contributions. Our system then revolves less around the 1% who have the resources to donate big contributions and more around the other 99% (Lessig). As Lessig notes, “Since a campaign would have to raise its funds from the very many, it could weaken the power of the very few to demand costly kickbacks for their contributions.” So not only are we redistributing power, but members are getting elected to carry out idea’s on their platform, not what their special interest contributors want.
The second part of my proposal entails remodeling the way we incentivize Congress members. Currently, members are fixated on getting re-elected. Instead of motivating them to work on legislation, this motivates Congress members to fundraise, which, as mentioned above, is a time and energy waster. I propose that we base Congress members eligibility for reelection off of their legislative accomplishments, specifically their budget proposals. Taking from Warren Buffet, we pass a law “that says anytime there’s a deficit of more than three percent of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election.(Crippen)” While coming up with an acceptable budget will never be easy, having their reelection on the line should incentivize Congress members to work together to successfully complete a budget. It’s worth noting that the Senate passed its first budget proposal in four years this year, a budget that many think will be shot down in the House (Barrett). What’s more, Congress members who can’t learn to compromise or propose a budget will be out, making room for Congress members who can do it. Through this process, we will motivate Congress members to pass the budget and weed out the uncompromising politicians who stand in the way of a reasonable and successful budget. Both congressional gridlock and the federal deficit could benefit from such a change.
There are many problems that arise with this two-pronged solution. Most significantly, legislation that puts Congress members re-election or campaign funds on the line will be unfavorable to them, the people in power. In order to pass something like that, we would need a strong grassroots movement, which, in fact, is being attempted by various grassroots leaders but is still a long way from being successful. However, the support seems to be there. According to a poll by No Labels (a grassroots movement group), 94 percent of registered voters believe congressional gridlock is “hurting the U.S. economy (Breaking the Gridlock: National Grassroots Movement No Labels Unveils Sweeping Action Plan to Make Congress Work).
While fixing the gridlock in Congress is easy to talk about, in reality, it’s hard to do. My proposal would take a large effort from a lot of people, an extraordinary grassroots movement. We’ve done before in the Civil Rights movement and hopefully we’ll be able to do it again soon with Congressional gridlock. The support is there and the dominos are starting to fall: In court right now, overturning Citizens United is being debated. What’s more, many present and former Congress members are taking charge of this issue, confronting Congressional gridlock and paving the way for change by starting grassroot movement activism. The first step in any change is getting reasonable idea’s to surface. That’s what we’ve been doing. Perhaps, within the next decade we will see some real impact from these circulating idea’s - change that might rank Congress higher than cockroaches, traffic jams, and Nickleback (Jensen).