Sarbanes Was His Own Campaign-Finance Guinea Pig. The House Weighs His Bill Wednesday.

Mar 3, 2021
In The News

For years, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) had an ongoing experiment: testing his campaign-finance legislation on his own reelection races. He would set aside hundreds of thousands in high-dollar donations and would not touch it, not until he had raised at least $1,000 in small-dollar contributions from 100 different precincts in his district. Cold-calling donors on Election Day in 2014, he told one skeptical constituent: “In a sense, I’m calling from the future. I’m calling from a time when candidates will have an incentive to reach out to the small donors of the world.” On Wednesday, the House will consider whether to make that world a reality. The public campaign-financing system Sarbanes envisions will go up for a vote as part of a sweeping campaign-finance and voting-access package he’s worked on for the better part of 15 years.... House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Sarbanes the “godfather” of the legislation in a speech on the House floor Tuesday, crediting his “long-term dedication” to advancing democracy. The bill — H.R. 1, the For the People Act — seeks to drastically broaden access to the ballot at a time when GOP state lawmakers are trying to advance more voting restrictions. It would expand early, absentee and mail-in voting, while also enabling automatic voter registration and trying to end partisan gerrymandering. And it seeks to amplify the power of grass-roots donors to counter the influence of big money in politics, through a small-dollar donor matching system. “The stakes could not be higher,” said Sarbanes, a Baltimore native who chairs the Democrats’ Democracy Reform Task Force and is the son of the late Sen. Paul Sarbanes. A similar version of the bill was approved by the Democratic-majority House in 2019, but died in the Republican-controlled Senate.... “We’ve never needed it more than we needed it in this moment, when you look at what’s happening across the country,” Sarbanes said, citing Republican attempts to restrict voting access as well as President Donald Trump’s effort to sow distrust in the U.S. electoral system leading up to the Capitol attack. “We’ve got a piece of legislation that can stop that voter suppression effort in its tracks, broadly expand people’s access to the ballot box . . . and push back against this undue influence that big money has on our politics and the way we govern in America,” Sarbanes said. Under the campaign-finance overhaul included in H.R. 1, candidates would be able to opt into a six-to-one matching system for small-dollar donations. Just like in Sarbanes’s experiment, they would only qualify to unlock the funds if they raise $50,000 from at least 1,000 small-dollar donors first, and agree not to take certain PAC money. The matching funds would be sourced not from taxpayers — as Republican critics have frequently and incorrectly asserted — but from civil settlements or criminal fees the federal government wins against corporate wrongdoers or major tax evaders. In the future Sarbanes envisions, a $50 donation from a donor of modest means would be worth $350 to the candidate.... “I think maybe the future is now,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve reached the point where if we can get a system like this in place, all the incentives can shift, and you’ll see candidates that will finally reach out and build those bridges and connections to everyday Americans who maybe don’t have a ton of money, but they can give something, and they want their voice to be heard.”