The primary features of the Government By the People Act of 2014 (HR 20), which was recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by John Sarbanes (Democrat, Maryland), are a $25 “My Voice Tax Credit” for people making small contributions and the “Freedom From Influence Matching Fund,” which provides a six-to-one match in public funds for small campaign contributions (up to $150) to boost the power of small donors. Candidates who elect to receive public funding through these provisions must agree to an upper limit of $1,000 per contribution from each individual donor. The act also provides for the creation of “People’s Political Action Committees” consisting of small donors only.
This bill is worthy of support. Giving candidates the option of accepting limits on the size of campaign contributions in exchange for public funding would make it very easy for voters to determine which candidates are beholden to moneyed interests. I would like to suggest a few changes that would make the act even more effective and appealing.
The Government By the People Act requires candidates who opt in to public financing to spend one dollar of private funds for each dollar of public funds. This means these candidates would have to raise most of their money from donors who give more than the amount eligible for matching funds ($150). This is not a major concern, but I don’t see the necessity for this requirement.
A greater concern is the fact that the Government By the People Act does not do enough to change the nature of our political campaigns. Our elections have devolved into little more than fund-raising campaigns followed by advertising campaigns. Elected officials spend an inordinate amount of time raising money for re-election campaigns. Candidates who challenge an incumbent must also raise huge amounts of money to be taken seriously by the media. A sizable percentage of the money raised is spent on television commercials attacking a candidate’s opponent, often featuring deliberately misleading and distorted information. I would like to see a stipulation added that none of the public funds received could be used to purchase advertising time on broadcast media or in print media if the ad mentions or references an opponent.
What our elections are lacking is an open, balanced and constructive discussion of the issues and problems we face as a nation, with candidates clearly stating which solutions they will support, if elected. The best way to do that would be to amend the Government By the People Act to reinstate two lapsed provisions in the laws and regulations related to elections: the equal-time rule and the Fairness Doctrine.
The equal-time rule was deeply flawed and riddled with exceptions, but the spirit of the rule is important. It was designed to make sure that radio and television broadcast stations provide an equivalent opportunity to all of the candidates who request it and not play favorites.
The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that required the holders of broadcast licenses to present issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced. The FCC decided to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.
The Government By the People Act should revive and improve the concepts of equal time and the Fairness Doctrine. Television and radio stations (including cable channels), other than those with no political content, should be required to provide a certain amount of free time for candidates to identify the issues they feel are important and to explain their positions on those issues. The time would be divided equally among all candidates appearing on the ballot within each station’s broadcast area. When using this time, candidates should not be allowed to make reference to opponents directly or indirectly.
In addition to the free time provided to all candidates, any station that accepts political advertising should be required to provide an equal amount of free time to any candidate who is attacked or impugned in an ad it broadcasts. To compensate for this additional free time, stations should be allowed (required?) to charge double their normal advertising rate for attack ads, if the names of people providing the funding for the ads is available to the public, and triple the normal rate if the names of donors are not made public.
When issues rather than candidates are involved, a similar provision could be made for political action committees on all sides of an issue to receive equal time free of charge. “People’s PACs” should be prohibited from funding negative ads and should receive the free ad time if negative ads are aired by regular PACs.
In an op-ed piece that appeared in the Washington Post on February 4, 2014, Nancy Pelosi and John Sarbanes stated that “Most members of Congress would leap at the chance to fund their campaigns without having to turn to a familiar cast of big donors and entrenched interests. Today, that’s virtually impossible.” The Government By the People Act, as introduced, does not do much to relieve candidates of the burden of raising enormous amounts of money to fund campaigns, it merely enables them to raise smaller amounts of money from a broader potential pool of contributors. This is a worthwhile goal, but would not reduce the amount of time devoted to fund-raising.
The revival and expansion of the equal time provision and the Fairness Doctrine, as outlined here, would make it easier for candidates to get elected without raising huge sums of money, as well as to resist the urge to air attack ads. Any candidate worthy of a seat in Congress should relish the opportunity to devote more time to legislating and less to raising money, and to win election to office by stating their positions on the issues, instead of by selling their allegiance to the highest bidders and using the money to attempt to persuade voters to support them primarily because their opponent is corrupt or immoral.
The Government By the People Act has the potential to make it a lot easier for voters to make informed choices. The inclusion of a return to the equal time provision and the Fairness Doctrine would greatly increase its impact. If we replace the endless volleys of negative ads with a calm and reasoned discussion of the issues, we might even end up with a Congress worthy of our approval.Powered by Sidelines