Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go on the Up with Chris Hayes Show on MSNBC to talk about the issue of money in politics and what we can do about it. These days, the air is thick with cynicism about whether Congress can operate independently of the special interests that are pouring huge sums of money into political campaigns and bankrolling an ever-expanding army of lobbyists in Washington.
The recent rise of Super PACs realizes our worst fears about the effects of the Citizen's United case and suggests that it won't be too long before corporations and billionaires sponsor political candidates the way magnates now own sports teams. If you think this is a sinister trend in presidential campaigns, just wait until the Super PACs train their attention on Congressional races, where it's even harder for candidates to fight back against a money onslaught.
The most effective tactic, already displayed in the 2010 cycle, is for these outside groups to wait until the final stages of the campaign and then ambush candidates with negative advertising. When that happens, traditional higher donors are of little use to the targeted candidate because they are typically tapped out by that point in the cycle. The one thing that might save the candidate is the very thing he or she usually does not have -- a network of online grassroots donors that can be activated quickly to raise critical funds.
The lesson is that, in this new world in which outside groups have the ability to drop huge sums of money on a candidate in the final days of the campaign, having a strong grassroots donor network is indispensable. That's why I decided to devote my efforts in this election cycle to building such a network. It's the right thing to do for so many reasons, but one in particular stands out. At a time when special interest money is being showered on legislators in Washington, grassroots donors offer members of Congress a refreshing independence. The $25 and $50 donor is not looking for special favors. He or she is simply expecting their Congressman to go do the right thing.
My effort to build a grassroots donor network is modeled after the Fair Elections Now Act, a public financing proposal that was introduced in Congress four years ago. Under this legislation, a candidate who assembles a high volume of grassroots donations ($100 or less) is rewarded with access to a public matching fund. Recognizing that the Fair Elections Now Act is unlikely to become law any time soon, I decided to use my own campaign to demonstrate such an approach. We raised two challenge funds from a group of traditional donors and I pledged not to touch those funds until we could build a grassroots network.
The first Challenge Fund of $500,000 can only be unlocked when the campaign has secured donations from 1000 grassroots donors. The second Challenge Fund of $250,000 will be unlocked when the amount raised from the grassroots totals $50,000. However you want to look at this - Super PAC insurance, as Larry Lessig calls it, or plain old citizen empowerment -- it's a way to start taking our democracy back from the special interests. To learn more, go to www.grassrootsdonor.com.
Follow Rep. John Sarbanes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/grassrootsdonor