Can Biden produce permanent campaign finance reform?
This OpEd originally ran Sept. 11, 2020 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
In 1920, Warren Harding won the presidential election promising a “return to normalcy.” This followed the turbulence of World War I, the Spanish flu epidemic, and Senate rejection of the League of Nations. But when Harding died 2½ years later, his successor, Calvin Coolidge, clarified the meaning of “normalcy” by declaring: “The chief business of America is business.”
Flash forward 100 years. Joe Biden is running on a similar pledge of normalcy, but if Biden wins, our nation must resist returning to any business as usual. After all, it was our already deteriorated political norms that had helped produce a President Trump in the first place.
Foremost is reforming our severely flawed campaign finance system that undergirds most D.C. gridlock and stalls most issues except those that benefit moneyed interests. For examples, look no further than every defense appropriations bill and the unanimous 2016 vote that defanged Drug Enforcement Agency power at the height of the opioid crisis.
Of course if Biden wins, he’ll have quite a to-do list cleaning up after Trump. There’s recovering from COVID-19, repairing our damaged federal institutions, and closing the many loopholes Trump exposed and exploited. But even though Biden will have raised and spent more than $1 billion on his presidential campaign, I actually can still see a scenario in which he takes up campaign finance in earnest.
This is because Biden’s age (78 on Nov. 20) will make him even more eager than most new presidents to quickly pass legacy legislation that cements his name in history. Uniquely fitting this bill would be a constitutional amendment that finally fixes key flaws in our elections that the U.S. Supreme Court has either refused to change or made worse with bad rulings ranging from Citizens United to corporate personhood to gerrymandering.
Plus, no potential legacy-making legislation can approach the vast public support of campaign finance reform. According to a 2018 University of Maryland poll, 88% of voters say reducing big-donor influence is important. Further, this high figure stayed constant whether a very red or very blue district.
So if Democrats reclaim the Senate, Biden could leverage this and post-Trump hunger for reform early in his term. This is what happened with passage of Obamacare in 2010, Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, and Clinton’s 1993 budget plan. But unlike those votes, an amendment will require two-thirds of both chambers of Congress. To help attract Republican support, Biden should invoke the memory of John McCain, whose Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (a.k.a. McCain-Feingold) was D.C.’s last (failed) attempt to save our federal system from its own rapacity.
Another key is proposing a truly nonpartisan amendment with no partisan poison pills. For example, corporate and union donations must be equally banned. I proposed just such a constitutional amendment when I ran earlier this year for Congress in California’s 7th District. Its key elements are, first, to limit all federal candidates to donations only from individuals eligible to vote for them.
This would mean U.S. House candidates could raise money only from voters within their district, and Senate candidates from voters in their state. This would effectively end all donations from PACs, corporations and rich outside donors, and return voters to their rightful central place in our representative democracy. It should also eliminate about 80% of money from our elections, allowing more candidates to run who are more interested in public service than dialing far and wide for campaign dollars.
Second, the amendment must end all dark money by overturning the abominable 2010 Citizens United ruling. This can be done by declaring:
Corporations are not people in any legal sense,
Political donations are not free speech and can be regulated, and
Media and social media outlets cannot run or host any political ads from groups lacking a transparent, accessible donor list or any political ads from non-candidate third parties within 30 days of the start of balloting (except for ballot initiatives).
The amendment should also reform other long-needed corrections related to gerrymandering, length of campaigns and out-of-control advertising in support of Supreme Court nominations. (See full amendment details at FreeTheVote.com.)
The possibility for Biden backing this approach recently increased when he announced support for making election day a federal holiday.
Including this in an Elections Reform Constitutional Amendment would be one more way to recommit our nation to its democratic ideals.
For this alone, history would smile brightly on Biden for more than just returning the federal government to pre-Trump “normalcy.” A President Biden will have helped save American democracy for the ages.
Sacramento-based Jeff Burdick founded FreeTheVote.com in 2019.