Should Small Campaign Donations be Matched with Tax Dollars?

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) suggested that Congress give small-dollar donors “some real power” in elections through matching donations.

“We’ve proposed legislation, the Government By the People Act, that’s one of many efforts that would give small donors out there, everyday citizens, some real power again in their democracy – matching funds would come in behind small donations –and allow candidates to run a viable competitive campaign by turning in the direction of everyday citizens instead of feeling like they have to go to the sort of deep-pocketed sources of funding,” he said at a “Make It In America: What’s Next?” forum on Capitol Hill.

“If we do that, I think we’ll bring back those Americans who have lost hope in their democracy, and with their voices in the political town square we’ll get back to good, sound public policy -- so I hope that you’ll consider that.”

Under the bill, sponsored by Sarbanes, donations to House candidates of up to $150 would be matched 6-to-1 from revenue raised through ending corporate tax loopholes.

Sarbanes said a matching system is “wonderful” because it makes a $25, $50 or $100 donor a “power player” in the political process.

Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) said millennials, in particular, think the game of politics is rigged. Kilmer asked Sarbanes if he agreed with that assessment.

“I think there’s no question that many, many Americans, including young Americans, think that the game is rigged right now. If you look at the turnout in the last national election, it was the lowest voter turnout we’ve had since 1942 before the march from Selma to Montgomery… and that’s a travesty,” he said.

“A lot of rational Americans look and they say, ‘Well, if what I am being asked to do is go to the polls and make a choice between two candidates, one of which is going to go to Washington and represent somebody else, then why bother? Why not maintain a little bit of dignity and stay home and not pretend that my voice matters.’”

Sarbanes said public financing of campaigns would cause the candidate pool to diversify.

“People who before could never afford to run, they couldn’t get through the money primary or the so-called green primary, because they didn’t know a lot of people with a lot of money, they’re stepping up and they’re running,” he said.

“In Maine, plumbers and electricians, grocery store clerks are running, competing and winning and serving in the Maine legislature because public financing allows them to get in and be competitive – that’s the promise of bringing that sort of reform to Washington as well.”