In the last few weeks of this campaign, Central Coast voters are going to be inundated with over $1 million of outside Washington, D.C., money trying to determine the outcome of the election. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has already put in $300,000; the House Majority PAC (a SuperPAC, which is not required to disclose its donors, can spend unlimited amounts of dark money in campaigns, and is also tied to the DCCC) has promised to spend at least that much in addition. Their Republican counterpart, the NRCC, has committed at least $200,000. Their goal? To manipulate the voters into choosing their hand-picked candidates, rather than allowing us to determine for ourselves who we would like to see as our next Congressional representative.
So what does this all mean? For one thing, it means you’re going to see a lot more political TV ads and postcards over the next two weeks. More importantly, it means that our tri-county area has suddenly become a picture-perfect example of a problem that has struck national politics and shows no sign of improvement. Dark money spending on campaigns is spiking — in the 2016 election cycle, we have already seen outside spending hit over $350 million nationally. That’s three times higher than it was at this point in 2012.
So what’s their return on this massive investment? If D.C. spends over half a million dollars to get someone elected, we have to ask: What they will demand from that individual? How compromised will those newly elected individuals become once in office? Members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, are expected to spend 30 hours a week on the phone raising money that goes to the party. That’s time away from their constituents, from hands-on work for the people of their district, and from studying the complex issues facing our country that come up for votes on Capitol Hill.
The rise in fundraising becomes an ever-growing cyclical practice: Outside DC organizations spend massive funds to help candidates get elected, and if successful, those newly elected officials then spend time raising money to give back to the same organizations, who use it to handpick their next round of candidates. It dilutes the power of individual voters in the home district.
Now more than ever, we need national campaign finance reform, and we need to elect lawmakers who are willing to speak out against these unacceptable practices. Being a part of this primary process, and talking with voters throughout the 24th Congressional District about the role of money in elections, I am more determined than ever to champion this issue as your next Representative.
First and foremost, we must create and pass federal legislation like the DISCLOSE Act that overturns the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and requires that all political spending (including special-interest and corporate money) be reported and publicly available.
But that should only be the beginning. We can also empower small donors by instituting a publicly funded matching program that amplifies the voices of people who aren’t able to make a maximum-level contribution; similar programs have been instituted in New York City and states across the country to great success. We can strengthen the Federal Election Commission, the body tasked with enforcing campaign finance regulations, to ensure that all candidates are, in fact, following the laws that already exist. And we can tighten restrictions on party committees and so-called “Victory Funds” that allow donors to skirt the limits that are in place.
These are all ways that Congress can act to solve the problem our nation is facing. However, they aren’t the first step. The first step is up to you: vote. Vote on June 7, and again on November 8. Vote for candidates who stand against the big-money establishment interests, instead of benefiting from them. Vote for the people who will represent you.
Helene Schneider is mayor of the City of Santa Barbara and a candidate for the U.S. Congress, 24th District.