The New York Times

Give Small Political Donors a Voice

August 23, 2012

The Congressional race between two incumbent Democrats in the redrawn 30th District in California is one of the most expensive in the country, but it is hardly unusual in reflecting the influence of big donors. Howard Berman has raised $3.5 million, while his opponent, Brad Sherman, raised $2.7 million. For both candidates, only 1 percent of their money came from donations under $200.

They both have relied heavily on political action committees, and among their biggest givers have been employees of cable television companies, entertainment conglomerates, financial institutions and law firms. Mr. Berman has a laughably “independent” “super PAC” — the Committee to Elect an Effective Valley Congressman — that has spent nearly $600,000 on his behalf, much of it coming in chunks of as much as $100,000 from financial executives, unions and entertainment companies. In addition, Mr. Sherman lent his own campaign $700,000.

That fits a typical and corrupting pattern that gives the wealthiest interests outsize influence in electing candidates to Congress, making lawmakers obligated to them instead of ordinary voters of modest means. In 2008, of donations to House candidates, only 8 percent were less than $200; small donations accounted for 14 percent to Senate candidates. A vast majority of donors earn $100,000 or more, leaving most of the public out of the conversation and away from the attention of political candidates.

For many voters, it seems pointless to donate $25 when the real game is being played at a much higher level. When a hard-right “super PAC” like Club for Growth can spend nearly $6 million to help a single Tea Party candidate in Texas — Ted Cruz — win his Senate primary, why bother with pocket change? (Other conservative “super PACs” threw in $2 million or so on his behalf.)

On Wednesday, two groups with outspoken records in favor of campaign finance reform proposed a plan that could restore a voice to ordinary citizens. Based on the very successful New York City campaign finance system, the plan would match contributions of $250 or less at a 5-to-1 rate with public funds. If someone gave $100 to a candidate, the program would add another $500 in public funds, magnifying the importance of the small donation.

The plan — proposed by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and Democracy 21, a campaign finance watchdog group — would be voluntary, but participating candidates would have to accept a $1,250 limit on all contributions, half the current level of $2,500. There would be a ceiling on public matches to candidates and a $50,000 limit on the amount a candidate could contribute to the campaign but no limit on spending.

The two groups estimated that such a system would cost about $700 million a year. But consider the benefits New York City has enjoyed from its program: more than half the donors to city candidates in 2009 were first-time givers, and more than 80 percent of those contributions were $175 or less. The percentage of residents contributing to a city campaign was more than three times higher than in New York State, and they were far more diverse (a good reason the state needs a similar system).

Members of Congress will undoubtedly say the federal government can’t afford such a program, but they are rarely so hesitant about doing the bidding of their biggest donors. It’s time they started paying attention to people with smaller wallets and more urgent needs.