Alaska's 2014 general election underscores need for campaign finance reform

I'm breathing a bit easier since the election. Not because of any particular outcome, mind you, as many of the races haven't officially been called, but because the suffocating barrage of ads, the annoyance of telephone polls, and the landslide of mail is finally over. This was the most expensive campaign season ever in Alaska's history; over $50 million was spent on the U.S. Senate race alone. I ask myself: does all that money make me doubt that our senator (whether Begich or Sullivan) will really represent everyday Alaskans when he goes to Washington? You bet it does.

There is a real problem with campaign finance in this country. Although federal law restricts the amount that can be contributed by individuals, the limits are quite high. The maximum that can be given to a state or local party committee is $10,000, and to a candidate is $2,600 per election. The important point is that 85 percent of the funding for our congressional races comes from these large contributions, so candidates and political parties target the especially large contributors in their fundraising efforts. The number of big contributors is tiny: The number of people who give $2,600 is less than .05 percent of our population, and those giving $10,000 is less than .01 percent of it. This concentration gives the funders of political campaigns enormous influence.

The second important point is that while corporations and unions are barred from donating money directly to candidates or national party committees, there are ways around the system.

1) Corporations, unions, and individuals may form Political Action Committees (PACs), which contribute to federal candidates and fund other election-related activities. Individuals may donate up to $5,000 per year to as many PACs as they like, even if they are all supporting the same candidate.

2) In the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, there is no limit on what individuals, corporations, unions and Political Action Committees can spend on independent expenditures: Money spent to influence an election but that is "uncoordinated" with an individual campaign. This decision led to the rise of "independent-expenditure only" PACs, commonly known as super PACs." The expenditures of a super PAC may be uncoordinated, but I'm sure they do not go unnoticed or unappreciated or, dare I say, unrewarded.

The need for campaign money hamstrings the government, as members of Congress devote more time each day to fundraising than working. Here is an excerpt from a Huffington Post article describing a PowerPoint presentation given to incoming members of Congress by the Democratic leadership. "The daily schedule ... contemplates a nine or 10-hour day while in Washington. Of that, four hours are to be spent in 'call time' and another hour is blocked off for 'strategic outreach,' which includes fundraisers and press work. An hour is walled off to 'recharge,' and three to four hours are designated for the actual work of being a member of Congress -- hearings, votes, and meetings with constituents. If the constituents are donors, all the better."

This dynamic is not partisan, and it blocks reforms on all sides. Perhaps you are a Republican who wants to see smaller government and a simpler tax system. Perhaps you are a Democrat who wants to see meaningful climate change legislation or more comprehensive health care. The work you want Congress to do is thwarted by the political power wielded by large campaign donors. And the system is self-rewarding. It just goes around and around.


So what can we do? We can make campaign finance reform an issue in the next congressional election.

During the recent campaign, both Begich and Sullivan experimented with calling for limits on Outside money, but the idea didn't seem to resonate with us, the voters, enough to push one of them to reject the funds. Shame on us.

I'm not asking you to switch party loyalty for campaign finance reform -- I'm asking you to help me make sure that every candidate of every party puts this issue at the top of his or her priority list. Next time a primary election rolls around, put pressure on your candidate to commit to campaign finance reform. If there's a choice in your primary, back the candidate who commits to reform.

If you want to learn more, please check out MayDay.us, a non-partisan, crowdfunded organization dedicated to campaign finance reform. They are working on strategies to take back our government from the few and return it to the many citizens of the United States of America.

Dan Schwartz lives in Anchorage. He is registered as an undeclared voter and is hoping to recover from this campaign season before the next one starts.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.