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The Government By the People Act: Making It Even Better

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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.

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About Winston Apple

Winston Apple is the author of "Edutopia: A Manifesto for the Reform of Public Education." He is a former teacher. He has a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Missouri at Kansas City (1990). He is also a singer-songwriter and recording artist.
  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    This sounds like a good idea.The more small donors involved in the campaign process – the better.

  • bliffle

    Sounds like a bad idea. All you’re offering is “now that we corporations have bought the right to bribe any politician anytime we’re willing to offer you puny citizens a chance to buy back a puny fraction of that power; at our usual inflated monopoly prices, of course; and we reserve the right to ignore you”.

    Wouldn’t it be easier simply to disallow large bribes? Limit the big guys to the same small bribes that us puny citizens can pony up.

  • bliffle

    And who are these monopolists that control US politics? They don’t even have to be US citizens! They can be any old foreigner or crackpot or whatever. We threw open the doors to bribery by all comers with that @$%% Consumers United decision by SCOTUS.

    The commies and Islamic crazies were all dumb! The modern corporate way to conquer America is simply to buy it’s politicians. No wars, no bombs, no revolutions, no spies, no secret meetings, no underground newspapers, no barricades. Just MONEY!

    And who has the money? The gigantic monopolies that control revenue streams like cable, TV, internet, fast food, drugs, etc.

    As for you insignificant citizens and workers and rent payers and hangers-on at the edge of “the economy” (a monster you have NO control over), just watch out! Don’t deviate! Don’t complain! And most of all, don’t try to change it.

    • kurt brigliadora

      Yes, and why do u suppose that was able to happen in this country , who in your opinion sold out the USA ?

  • Jerry Camp

    SCOTUS declared that corporations can play by the same funding rules as the unions. Much butthurt was felt by the democrats.

  • bliffle

    Actually, SCOTUS declared that Money can scream it’s wants and needs and demands loudly into the ears of officials while ordinary citizens, mere flesh and blood must abide having their voices drowned out by competing offers of bribes from anonymous bribers, who we will know NOTHING about.

  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    In time, novice political candidates will learn how to use the social media in ways that will overcome the money deficit. We need to start talking about redesigning the implementation of governance at the top by introducing such things as a uniform code of conduct, strict control over purchasing and other reforms across the spectrum of federal, state and local offices. The art of organizational design is more sophisticated now than in the ’50s and ’60s. Let’s use these new tools to reform government at every level.

    • kurt brigliadora

      Hey, what can I say , if a guy like Trump… can not change the way this country does business , and the lack of respect people have for each other , I guess we can depend on Palin or Pelosi…huh,

  • bliffle

    When the SCOTUS stupidly decided Consumers United to allow corporations to contribute to campaigns they committed a terrible logic error since corporations are BY THEIR CHARTER shielded from accountability. But true citizens are not. Thus, the only rule constraining a corp is to maximize yield, which is no constraint at all.

    Contrary to what Milton Freedman argued, that crime is impossible in a true market economy, we see that crime is rampant in market economies. Alan Greenspan himself admitted that when he left office, but it should be obvious to anyone.

    We may as well throw open the doors to the prisons as to let corporations brazenly bribe our politicians, whether those corps are foreign dominated or criminal dominated.

  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    We have a Securities Exchange Commission and a National Association of Securities Dealers(NASD) to deal with the market economy crime. The GAO is another important government audit entity with wide latitude, discretion and reporting to the Congress.

    How much crime is in the systems of the old Soviet Union? We do have a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act with a reporting requirement. There is just so much you can do with crime.

    The thing that really needs more supervision and public transparency is lobbying, limits on campaign contributions and more robust codes of conduct in government at the federal, state and local levels. In addition, more robust auditing must occur in the purchasing functions of corporations and the government at every level. Bribery, if it occurs at all, may happen at the point of purchase of a good or service.

    • kurt brigliadora

      Laughable!…yes, but in the mean time; gas, food and insurance premiums r through the roof. The only reason gas prices in this country are not 6 bucks a gallon is because they know they cant get it,and that would take away from the wal marts and big chain stores. less disposable income in the mix

  • bliffle

    The SEC and NRDA are neutered weaklings whose balls were cut off by the corporations that now own the government.

    Corps used the compliant agencies headed by anti-regulation bozos appointed by compliant presidents of both parties. And they have repeatedly had their budgets cut by compliant congresses under the guise of “cost cutting”.

    For example, the Justice department doesn’t have enough budget to pursue anti-monopoly against the most flagrant offenders. Yet, anti-monopoly is an ESSENTIAL part of a capitalist system, as affirmed by Smith, Freedman, Greenspan, and other prominent conservative thinkers.

    There is NO Invisible Hand! We need a very visible regulatory hand for capitalism to succeed and not degenerate into simple feudalism.

    • kurt brigliadora

      your so right but , I don’t see it changing any time soon.

  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    There must be more robust auditing of public and private institutions. The audit function examines processes like the purchasing function carefully along with the representations made by management. Financial statements are prepared in compliance with the standards of the governing boards.

    The IFAC (International Federation of Accountants) has been stepping up international compliance standards in recent years. Ditto for the Government Accounting Standards Board and other supervisory functions over the government and private sector. The Federal Reserve is putting into place much more rigorous stress tests of banks to limit exposure to things like derivatives.

    This reviewer believes that the Uniform Commercial Code should be updated to include the basic definition of derivatives, as well as, the rights, duties, responsibilities and recourse of the parties to the derivative transactions. Once the UCC is updated, Courts will have more precedent in making citations of the law.

    • kurt brigliadora

      Huh, guess what,,the party is over , no matter what code is put in place =the money is out of the system,and banks want your first born!

  • bliffle

    Revoke the Consumers United ruling by SCOTUS. Congress can do that with a law. Corporations are NOT persons and no amount of contortion can make it so. We, the citizens of the USA, are not under any obligation to provide bribing privileges to anyone (especially foreigners and especially anonymous people) and bribe access to anyone, and the US constitution doesn’t provide that.

    It is utter madness to allow unidentified foreigners to determine USA government policy by simply buying commercial stocks.

    • kurt brigliadora

      nothing like “interlocking directorate”

  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    The Uniform Commercial Code sets forth the definitions under commercial law. This Code should be revised in a number of areas like derivatives and counterparty rights, duties, obligations and recourse. The UCC could review the definition and classification of corporations under the Code.

  • Dave Nalle

    Good grief what a bad idea. More government corruption of the political process with our tax money when we ought to be shutting down that particular nexus of corruption.

    • kurt brigliadora

      I say we make the school day longer , so mom and pop can save on the baby sitting and supervision costs.

  • roger nowosielski

    Dave, Long time no see. How ’bout a Facebook connection? Would you mind?

  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    Once we shut down the UCC or reduce its role-the likelihood of another Great Depression increases dramatically! We need better rules of the road-particularly for derivatives. Right now, pensions are increasingly in danger from irresponsible risk-taking in the markets. In addition, the Court system needs guidance to interpret law in individual cases brought by the SEC,IRS, NASD and other agencies(public and private) which protect the public from great harm. Courts don’t make law-they interpret the existing statutes.

    • kurt brigliadora

      sounds great in theory, but the reality is ; they r under staffed and the penny stock market is alive and well.