It’s tempting to argue, in the wake of President Obama’s victory, powered by more than 4 million small donors, that in fact Big Money can’t buy elections. But this isn’t really true for democracy in America, of course. A tiny, unrepresentative sliver of the population provides the vast bulk of funding for election campaigns. Lobbyists outnumber members of Congress by at least 25 to 1. And despite fresh rhetoric about open government, much of what Washington does with taxpayer dollars is still veiled in obscurity, if not outright secrecy. Consequently, the whole national conversation about issues is tilted far from the concerns of ordinary Americans, with results that are similarly skewed. Ask Americans about the economy, for example, and polls show they want a raise in the minimum wage. But ask politicians, and they’re more focused on the concerns of investors, who want to keep capital gains tax rates low.
Obama has a unique opportunity to change this equation. Buoyed by a massive campaign organization that mobilized some 2.2 million volunteers and made more than 150 million voter contacts, the president could use his second term to push through fundamental changes in the political process aimed at ensuring that all Americans – not just the wealthy – can participate more fully and equally in the necessary work of self-government. He can be remembered as the president who revitalized American democracy.
And Obama could lead on these issues without waiting for Congress to act. By executive order, he could require that government contractors disclose their political expenditures, as he considered doing in 2011. He could make his political appointees disclose their contacts with lobbyists and their involvement in fundraising activities. To revive his moribund open-government agenda, he could require that federal agencies list all the data they collect, whether or not the data are being made public. Then he could mandate that anything already being made public be made available online, so it is more accessible to all, rather than just to insiders and the well-connected.
Obama could also follow up on his off-the-cuff remark during his victory-night speech and actually start fixing the country’s broken voting system. Voter registration ought to be automatic at age 18. Election Day ought to be moved to the weekend, to make it easier for working people to vote. Polling places ought to be held to uniform national standards, with federal funding made available to help localities with the costs.
Fortunately, much of the legwork has already been done. The Fair Elections Now Act, which has 118 co-sponsors in Congress, would institute a constitutionally sound system of voluntary public financing for congressional candidates. The DISCLOSE Act would ensure that donations above $10,000 contributed by corporations and labor unions to influence elections get reported. The Lobbyist Disclosure Enhancement Act would require lobbyists to disclose which officials or members of Congress they are lobbying, speed up disclosure, and close loopholes that allow some of Washington’s most powerful players to avoid disclosure. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act would establish uniform public reporting of government spending by agencies and recipients, enabling much better tracking of where tax dollars actually go.
All this would hit Washington like an earthquake, but nothing less is needed – that is, if we are going to have a democracy in which ordinary Americans count for more than a throwaway line in all those fundraising emails.
Sifry is editorial director of Personal Democracy Media and senior adviser to the Sunlight Foundation.