THE BLOG
04/04/2014 09:29 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2016

All Is Not Lost: How to Win Money-in-Politics Reform

If you have a heartbeat, you are one of the vast majority of Americans thoroughly disgusted by this week's McCutcheon Supreme Court decision. It allows one donor to write a $3.6 million check to buy political influence, providing us all with yet another "just-when-you-thought-it-couldn't-get-any-worse" moment. As if we needed it.

You are also likely someone who rationally believes that money-in-politics corruption is a huge problem and something that simply cannot be fixed, because doing so requires the fox (politicians) put a lock on the henhouse (campaign contributions). This vexing dynamic is why we wallow in collective cynicism while the issue has only gotten worse since the last major reforms were passed 40 years ago.

But don't give up just yet. Contrary to popular belief, the money-in-politics problem can be fixed by emulating the stunning successes of other movements. Here's how to do it.

First, we need to take the fight to local communities, by passing city and statewide reform initiatives. For too long, reformers have advocated small-step, incremental reforms at the federal level, such as ending secret donations. This is a good and popular proposal, but alone will not come close to fixing the problem. Other reformers are advocating "publicly funded" elections, which is also good policy, but would not fix the entire problem if passed without simultaneous ethics, lobbying and transparency reforms.

And here's the key thing: comprehensive reform proposals that overhaul ethics, lobbying, transparency and provide public funding in one fell swoop enjoy over 80% voter approval, and they are constitutional, even under the current Supreme Court. As an added bonus, public funds created by statewide laws can go towards federal candidates from those states, and to judicial candidates in states that have them. This is a game-changing reform package, and in the words of one veteran pollster, "with these kinds of numbers, it's virtually impossible to lose a ballot initiative."

It is time to move from defense to offense, and pass a wave of local anti-corruption laws across the nation over the next few years -- while simultaneously organizing a 21st century anti-corruption movement made of grassroots conservatives, moderates and progressives. The nation is ripe for such a movement, with voters abandoning the major parties in droves. A recent Pew study shows that a full half of millennials identify as political independents, up from 38% in 2004. It is the combination of passing bold reforms in cities and states, while creating a loud and visible, right-left anti-corruption movement that will provide the political power necessary to force change.

We stand at a crossroads. Political corruption has grown so severe that reality is much closer to the dark TV drama "House of Cards" than what we learned about in grammar school. A recent New Yorker story about corruption in North Carolina describes state Senate Majority Leader John Unger:

"Unger recalled the first time that a lobbyist for a chemical company asked him to vote on a bill. "I said, 'I don't sign on to anything until I read it.' And he said, 'Well, that's not the way it works around here.' I said, 'Well, I don't know how it works down here, but that's the way I work.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't learn to get along, when it comes to your reelection, we'll stick a fork in you."

McCutcheon turned that lobbyist's salad fork into a pitchfork. But with the right strategy, we the people can, and will, stick a fork in the beast that our system has become. That fight starts here.