Josh Kurtz: John Sarbanes’ Crusade for Campaign Finance Reform

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Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has, quite properly, won plaudits for his push to reform the way congressional and legislative district lines are drawn in Maryland.

But Hogan so thoroughly dominates the political headlines in the state, it’s easy to forget that another prominent Maryland politician has an equally worthy reform agenda: That’s Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes’ legislation to create a public financing system for congressional elections.

As he marshals arguments for his bill, The Government By the People Act, Sarbanes likes to cite a quote generally attributed to James Madison: “Government should be dependent on the people alone.”

So to limit the influence of Big Money on elections and the American political discourse, Sarbanes envisions creating a public financing system that provides a pool of money (the Freedom From Influence Fund) for congressional contenders. Candidates who raise contributions in increments of $150 or less would be eligible for a 6-1 match in federal funds.

Sarbanes envisions a 50 percent tax credit for campaign donations of up to $100 every election cycle. To qualify for the fund, candidates would have to raise at least $50,000 in small contributions, limit each donor to $1,000 per cycle and refuse political action committee contributions.

Polls, Sarbanes said in a recent interview, show that voters across the ideological spectrum support “this kind of empowerment solution.”

“The public gets it,” he said. “They know the government of theirs isn’t theirs any more. It’s bought and paid for.”

As a member of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, Sarbanes has an uncomfortably close view of the special interest influence-peddling that regularly takes place on Capitol Hill, and he sees his colleagues’ addiction to campaign cash. The committee has a broad and bankable portfolio that includes health care and energy policy, which provides easy access to PAC contributions and industry-sponsored fundraisers.

Sarbanes refuses to take PAC money – no mean feat when it takes about $1.6 million these days to win a U.S. House seat every two years.

Fundraising without it “kind of becomes a heavy lift,” he conceded, “because it’s amazing how much PAC money rolls in. You’re leaving money on the table.”

Sarbanes said he sympathizes with colleagues’ inclination to want to cozy up with big-time contributors. “It’s malpractice to spend time with $50 donors instead of $1,000 donors,” he said.

The trick to persuading skeptical colleagues to embrace his proposal, Sarbanes believes, is convincing them that a public financing system will provide “enough” campaign cash for them to win. In fact, Sarbanes argues that about 8o percent of congressional candidates’ fundraising will be as robust in a public financing system as it is now.

“My colleagues have to believe that if they step into the public financing system, they’re not stepping into zero gravity,” he said.

Sarbanes sees the successful campaign of state Sen. Jamie Raskin (D), who is on his way to succeeding Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) in the House after winning a competitive and expensive Democratic primary in the spring, as a prime example of having “enough” money. Sarbanes endorsed Raskin, which he described as “an easy call.”

Raskin was heavily outspent in the primary by businessman David Trone, who self-financed his campaign with more than $13 million, and former broadcaster and Marriott executive Kathleen Matthews, who used her own connections and wealth to spend almost $3 million. But Raskin was still able to win the primary (of course, the $1.9 million that Raskin has spent so far would be the envy of most non-incumbent House candidates).

Sarbanes’ legislation has 160 co-sponsors. But don’t expect the measure to move any time soon. Only one co-sponsor is a Republican: North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones, who, like Sarbanes, is the son of a member of Congress – and often finds himself out of step with the GOP establishment.

But Sarbanes does not despair – and now in his 10th year on Capitol Hill, he’s taking the long view. He believes that secretly – maybe even not so secretly – many members of Congress support this kind of campaign finance reform, especially younger and newer members who are disgusted with the amount of time they have to devote to fundraising.

And while Sarbanes fights the fight in Congress, he cites examples of successful public financing systems in states and big cities, including New York City, Seattle, Maine and Connecticut. In Maryland, he’s watching closely to see how Montgomery County’s new public financing system will work, and he’s heartened by the amount of funding the county has provided for the program. Sarbanes is also campaigning for a ballot measure in Howard County this fall that would create public financing there.

By choosing to accept public financing in his upset victory for governor in 2014, Hogan also helped Sarbanes’ cause (just as Sarbanes’ bizarrely-shaped district no doubt helps Hogan’s call for redistricting reform).

“It’s not like you’ve got to go to another planet in the universe to watch it happen,” Sarbanes said.


Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.