This op-ed by ReFormers Caucus members Rep. Tim Roemer (D-IN) and Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN) originally appeared in The Hill.
The so-called blue Midwest firewall crumbled. The heartland launched a hand grenade into Washington, D.C.
Donald Trump won the presidential election by winning traditionally blue-collar workers in Democratic Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. After years of gridlock on Capitol Hill, Republicans now control the federal government, and energized congressional leaders are laying out an ambitious roadmap for the 115th Congress.
That is why it’s more important than ever that a high priority for the Congress and next administration should be to bring our nation together to directly attack one of the primary reasons for voters’ rage at Washington: our broken and distrusted democracy.
As former members of Congress from America’s heartland, we have seen first-hand how shuttered factories and shattered dreams have fueled economic populism. Directly related, political discontent is simmering across America targeted at our government and boosted by campaigns that are based on a contaminated funding system.
Americans lost faith in our government and politicians because our entire method for determining who is fit to run for higher office is based on the ability to raise enormous sums of cash. Presidential election spending has doubled since 2000. This post-Citizens United election was the most expensive yet — costing upwards of $7 billion — and special interest groups spent hundreds of millions of dollars to affect the outcome of congressional races, often dwarfing the candidates’ own campaigns.
Americans heard throughout the campaign from Bernie Sanders that Wall Street had engaged in a pay-to-play process that has hijacked the legislative agenda at the expense of blue-collar workers. Trump claimed to have bought politicians running for office based on giving them contributions for their campaigns and concluded that the system is rigged.
The impact of this bipartisan rhetoric and the race to raise cash by all political candidates is catastrophic. To fund these increasingly expensive contests for office, candidates prioritize grip-and-grin fundraisers with high-net-worth donors, rather than town-hall tours and coffees with constituents. It’s the same mentality and special interests that mired the 114th Congress in permanent partisan gridlock, in part because they spent a collective 1 million hours raising money, by conservative estimates. Money is not only a deciding factor in who wins elections for Congress, it determines who is eligible to run in the first place. Millionaires increasingly represent dozens of seats in Congress and middle-class candidates are discouraged from entering into public service.
The outsize influence of money in politics is something voters feel acutely. Recent polling indicates that Americans believe their elected representatives pay attention primarily to deep-pocketed donors, then they listen to lobbyists and, finally, at the end of the line, they pay attention to the voters. It’s no wonder public trust in government is at a record low and has been for nearly a decade, the longest period of low trust in 50 years.
Midwest voters and minorities are furious about their economic and political plight: at the loss of jobs, diminished employment prospects and a Washington establishment too preoccupied with dialing for dollars to focus on average Americans. Workers with less than a college education never recovered from the Great Recession of 2008. In fact, of the 700 counties that twice voted for Obama for president, a remarkable one-third flipped to support Trump.
There’s another important story within this election: Americans on both sides of the aisle took direct action and approved nearly a dozen state and local ballot initiatives that will reduce the power of special interests and open up state and local politics to broader participation and greater transparency.
For instance, voters in South Dakota passed the first-ever statewide Anti-Corruption Act, creating a game-changing “democracy voucher” system. Voters in Missouri reinstated contribution limits, while Maryland and Washington succeeded with similar related ballot reforms. The bold message, captured by the name of the group in Missouri who passed the initiative, is: “Return Government to the People.”
We strongly recommend that Congress and the Trump administration respond to these frustrated voters and implement bipartisan solutions to our crisis in democracy. Based on what states and localities are passing with citizen initiatives, Congress should write new rules to repair our broken patchwork of laws for funding campaigns. Such legislation should increase transparency and disclosure of election spending, improve existing ethics laws and adequately fund their enforcement, devise a system to empower small donors through tax rebates and vouchers and sever the connection between lobbyists and direct contributions. America needs a new jurisprudence and a reversal of past Supreme Court decisions such as “Buckley” and “Citizens United.”
President-elect Trump has promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington. He has an opportunity to reward his voters with actual legislative action or he can leave the alligators in the swamp and wait for the next election. It is highly likely that these impatient and agitated middle-class Americans will demand even bigger change in the next election cycle.