If you really want to know why ordinary Americans are being turned off by politics in record numbers, run for Congress.
More than likely, you'll find out, as I have, that what's wrong with Washington has a common root: money. Political access has become a commodity to be bought and sold through campaign contributions as never before. The voices of regular Americans are being muffled under a thick blanket of special interest dollars with concern for the common good all but lost. All this strikes at the very heart of our democracy.
As a result, dysfunction in Washington has overtaken anything getting done. Instead of bills that put the public first, we see bills written by lobbyists and signed-off on by the politicians they bankroll.
I'm a political outsider from the private sector. Given today's anti-incumbent, anti-Washington climate, the fact that I am not a professional politician literally opens doors that would otherwise stay closed at the homes of the many voters who are fed up and turned off. But since I'm new to politics, I did not start out with a ready network of donors to bring to the table. I have had to win support -- and contributions -- one phone call and meeting at a time. Instead of talking with and learning from potential constituents, I spend too much of my day talking with potential donors.
It's ironic that most of my donors -- who like me see the problem and want to fix our campaign finance system -- must become part of it to change it. It's not hard to find the gallows humor.
When New Jersey's independent-minded Bill Bradley announced his retirement from the U.S. Senate nearly 20 years ago, he did it with the proclamation that "politics is broken." Things have only gotten worse since that time.
Recent research by Professors Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern University) demonstrates that the average voter's influence over policy enacted by Congress has fallen to almost zero. Their findings conclude that influence on congressional legislation is drawn almost exclusively from corporate donors and self-interested individuals who can afford to give thousands in campaign contributions. They warn that we are slipping away from democracy and toward oligarchy.
Unfortunately, in spending most of my time trying to raise money from those who can afford to give large contributions, I can see their point.
We are never going to be able to take money out of politics entirely. Political campaigns are expensive. Congressional districts like mine are large and comprise a lot of territory. Even though I spend every moment I'm not raising money knocking on doors and meeting voters, the reality is that I won't be able to speak with the majority of the 710,000 people I hope to represent. I'll need to rely on television, radio and mailers to get my message out. Unfortunately, I have yet to find anyone willing to give those for free.
Since 1976, we have had a system of public financing for presidential candidates in place which provides funding through a voluntary $3 check-off by taxpayers on their income tax forms. In exchange for public funds, candidates must agree to abide by strict spending limits. We should expand that system to all federal races as well to make our democracy work again.
We also must be open to amending our Constitution to stop the flood of independent expenditure groups that have set up shop in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling. Surely, American politics has never been a polite sport -- our nation's history is littered with campaign tactics that would seem beyond the pale even by today's low standards. But it is hard to believe that the Founding Fathers conceived of the day when special interests and big money would subvert a government of, by, and for the people.
Until such reforms are in place, however, reform-minded candidates like me are resigned to continue running in a system we all know is broken. But hope is not lost. I remain confident that change is not only possible, but inevitable. Why? Voters are connecting the dots and 2014 is shaping up to be the year that they will speak. No less than the integrity of our democracy and the voice of the American people are at stake.
Roy Cho is running for Congress in a broken system in New Jersey's 5th Congressional District.