Rep. Jim Gerlach slams the DNC on fundraising

This op-ed originally appeared in RealClearPolitics.

As if Americans needed more reasons to fundamentally distrust their government, a package of nearly 20,000 leaked Democratic National Committee emails recently landed on doorsteps around the country in the form of news headlines. 

Squirreled away in the messages are kernels of insight into how some Washington politicians and their staff continue to court the donor class. For instance, the DNC promoted the opportunity to sit across from President Obama in exchange for five-figure donations to try and meet their $64 million goal for their Philadelphia convention.  

I grew up during the Watergate reform era and ran for office decades later under the rules that came out of that scandal. As a six-term former member of Congress, I’m no stranger to the demands of raising millions of dollars while in elected office. From when I started running for Congress in January of 2002 to the end of 2013, I raised $100,000, on average, every month. In 2006, during my most expensive race, I raised more than $3 million and was still outspent by my opponent. 

However, I can say with certainty that our modern campaign finance system betrays the lessons learned from that dark time in our country’s history. 

Today, money and access to it not only disproportionately determine who is likely to win re-election, but who runs for office in the first place. In fact, our campaign finance system of super PACs and “dark money” groups is far more destructive to a healthy democracy than I ever expected. Rather than learning from the mistakes and excesses of the 1970s, Washington and its political system raced in the opposite direction: In the 2014 midterm elections, campaigns and outside groups spent more than $3.77 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Each party spent more than $1.7 billion to gain control of each chamber in Congress. 

While most citizens believe that their federal legislators should go to Washington to legislate on the important issues of the day, they are appalled when they learn the number of hours legislators actually spend fundraising rather than legislating.

Simply put, it is time for bipartisan, legislative action that benefits average Americans — not the special interests — to become the norm in Washington again, and the first step to a functioning government is relieving the stranglehold money has over how we elect our leaders. A recent Issue One/Ipsos poll shows 81 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans would support their members of Congress working across the aisle to fix the issue. That same poll found 65 percent of Americans believe elected officials pay much more attention to deep-pocketed donors than regular voters. Meanwhile, millennials surveyed by the Harvard Institute of Politics said money’s corrosive impact on our government was a top five issue affecting their vote this November. 

All of this points to one distressing fact: Americans assume elected officials are “bought” by those who contribute to them. This feeling breeds cynicism and explains why Congress has been saddled with consistent disapproval ratings in at least the high-60 percent range since 2009, according to Gallup. When coupled with the present lack of bipartisan progress on a host of important policy issues — like combating the spreading Zika virus — that cynicism only breeds more distrust and “anti-establishment” fervor in both parties. While a great majority of rank-and-file elected officials are not “bought” by their donors, the perception is otherwise and that sentiment continues to erode Americans’ support for their system of government. 

If Washington wants to increase Americans’ level of trust in both the electoral and legislative processes, members of Congress need to unite behind comprehensive, bipartisan legislation. We need to make the donor-lawmaker pipeline more transparent to the public and empower more small donors to increase their participation in our political system. We should ensure no foreign money influences our elections and we should significantly limit the ability of well-funded super PACs to impact races. 

Two great legislative efforts are already underway in the House. Reps. Derek Kilmer(D-Wash.) and Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) wish to empower the Federal Election Commission to once again be the country’s election watchdog and enforce the frequently ignored campaign finance rules we have on the books. In addition, Rep.Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) joined Renacci to introduce a bill that would protect our elections from foreign sway. 

As members of Congress and presidential nominees continue to campaign through November, I urge them to listen to the American people, who are clamoring for bipartisan leadership on real campaign finance reform.

Right now, far too many citizens believe donors have more influence than voters, and that disillusionment is not a foundation for a healthy republic. It is time to put the power back in the hands of average Americans again.

Jim Gerlach was U.S. representative for Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District from 2003 to 2015. He is a member of the ReFormers Caucus of Issue One, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the influence of money in politics.