Peters: Sanders' Money Problem

by William Peters | 1/25/16 7:30pm

The fiery rhetoric of Bernie Sanders has set ablaze the hearts of young voters across the country. The Vermont senator’s strategy of late has been to target the current campaign finance system, a product of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which affirms the rights of non-profits to spend on candidates’ behalf. Sanders points to current campaign finance structures as the cause of the majority of our nation’s ills. Sanders argues that if elected officials were not so focused on fundraising, they would be far better legislators. He wants to revolutionize our political system, eliminating the ability of big banks, Wall Street and Super PACs to “buy” candidates and elections. While this may be the best vision for our country, realistically, it is unlikely to happen anytime soon, even if Sanders were to be elected.

At the press conference prior to his town hall meeting in Spaulding Auditorium on Jan. 14, I asked Sanders if as president he would go so far as to push for a constitutional amendment to override the decision on Citizens United. He said he would, and that he had already introduced such an amendment in January 2015.

Senate Joint Resolution 4 would: “Protect the integrity and fairness of the electoral process, limit the corrupting influence of private wealth in public elections and guarantee the dependence of elected officials on the people alone by taking actions which may include the establishment of systems of public financing for elections, the imposition of requirements to ensure the disclosure of contributions and expenditures made to influence the outcome of a public election by candidates, individuals, and associations of individuals, and the imposition of content neutral limitations on all such contributions and expenditures.”

Anyone with a decent moral compass and a desire to see the nation progress as a leader of the democratic world could get on board with this. Sanders has been relentlessly touting this kind of legislation; however, it went to committee a year ago, and no action has been made since. With gridlock and dependency on wealthy donors, little is likely to occur while Sanders is campaigning, even if the people at his rallies love cheering for campaign finance reform.

Elected officials’ fear of losing their financial backing is potent in Washington, and in statehouses across the country. Sanders cites the example of his Republican colleagues of the Senate health committee who have listened to testimony from doctors about cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, pointing out that they do not question the science being presented to them by experts. However, when it comes to issues such as climate change, Republicans dismiss scientific evidence, not because of disbelief, but because donors from the fossil fuel sector are often financial backers. The current state of campaign finance does not simply compromise the integrity of elections, but the integrity of the legislative process as well. Such influence does indeed endanger our democracy. Having the Koch brothers, the Walton family and Wall Street executives shape decisions on the economy, healthcare, defense, and foreign policy behind closed doors is a blight of the democratic process, and I agree with Sanders that it needs to end.

Sanders believes that if we were to eliminate the influence of wealthy donors, we would have a more productive democracy for the benefit of the people instead of the “mockery of one person, one vote,” created by Citizens United. There is nothing fair and equal about a few wealthy families having the ability to decide who the candidates are with millions of dollars while the rest of the electorate can only wait to cast a vote. The question is not about whether or not Sanders’s philosophy is correct, but rather if it is likely to become a reality. During the first January Democratic Primary debate, Sanders attacked rival candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her taking around $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, a company that has lobbied congress to cut social security. But Sanders is not safe from big money either, at least not politically. National Nurses United, the nation’s largest nurses union has spent more than $550,000 on advertising in support of Sanders’s campaign. Communications Workers of America, another major labor union, recently endorsed Sanders and said they would respect the candidate’s wishes, but use all “legal and possible” means to get him elected. Though these and similar organizations supporting Sanders are made of middle-class people and denounce the title “Super PAC,” they are still considered as such according to the FEC. While Sanders may continue to reject big money, the fact remains that he is going to need it to secure the nomination, let alone to continue funding a campaign through Nov. 8. My bet is that he’ll need that money in the final stretch, even if he doesn’t like it.

Even if Sanders sits in the Oval Office, getting a Republican-controlled Congress to walk away from their financial support will be a nearly impossible task. Sanders’s popularity with young voters suggests that the younger generations support his platform, but there are still other demographics that would need to get on board to get him elected and actually pass legislation that changes the system. Clinton is still the frontrunner in many states, and it might be that her candidacy presents a more realistic policy agenda, which will eventually secure her the nomination. However, if Sanders loses, he would have still changed the political dialogue. His loss would not invalidate the fact that Sanders, a long-shot candidate, made a serious challenge to an established party figure while being funded largely by the middle-class, with individual contributions averaging $27. His run shows that Sanders can advocate for campaign finance reform on the national stage while holding onto millions of supporters. If he loses, his loss would set the stage for other major advocates of reform who could create change in Congress, and even run a serious campaign in 2020.