by AARON MEGAR
The Maryland branch of PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) held a panel on Monday, bringing together politically minded people from Capitol Hill and the classroom to talk about campaign finance reform on both the local and national levels. The panel included Congressman John Sarbanes, UMD government professor Michael Spivey, former Montgomery County councilman Phil Andrews, and PIRG director Dan Smith. The four discussed everything dealing with campaign finance, ranging from the problems caused by 2010’s Citizens United case to future possibilities to control where campaign money is coming from.
The night was introduced, however, by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the delegate for Maryland’s eighth district on Capitol Hill. Van Hollen began by putting the problem on the table, stating that “in order to make sure we have a political system that reflects the public interest, we do need to fix our campaign finance system.” Playing on words, Van Hollen told the audience that though we believe our government is “for the people, of the people, by the people,” we didn’t mean to spell “by” “b-u-y,” insisting that government is bought by campaign donations given through corporations and wealthy members of society. Van Hollen, a Democrat, went on to explain what needs to be done in order to combat such a system. He laid out a couple of goals, including overturning the Citizens United ruling, which he described as a “Supreme Court decision that took a bad campaign finance system and made it much, much, much worse.” Van Hollen also said that our government needs to implement a new campaign finance system, and that it must work to get rid of secret money in politics. Van Hollen, however, could not participate in the panel, and after he signed off, the four speakers began with Professor Spivey.
Professor Spivey presented statistics to the audience, including that .5 percent of Americans fund 50 percent of campaign contributions and that 75 percent of Americans believe that money plays the biggest role in elections. He also brought up that government trust is at an all-time low in 2015 – while 70 percent of Americans “trusted” their government in 1970, only 20 percent do now. This is largely due to the role that money plays in our political system according to Spivey and the other panelists. Another alarming number that Professor Spivey brought up was in regards to the Citizens United Case, stating that “in the wake of Citizens United,” spending on campaign financing jumped by almost 400 percent in four years.
Rep. Sarbanes, who represents Maryland’s third district, began his talk by addressing a new problem: the lack of young voters.
“You’ve decided that it doesn’t really matter,” Rep. Sarbanes told the group of students. “That insiders run things in Washington. That big money calls the shots. And that nobody is really paying attention to you anyway. And that’s a rational judgement.”
Rep. Sarbanes asserted that the everyday citizen should play a serious role in funding a campaign, and that matching funds for politicians who only accepted small, everyday donations could create a system that works in this citizen’s advantage.
Dan Smith, representing PIRG, told the audience that “getting big money out of politics helps everything we do,” a statement that could summarize much of the night’s discussion. He stated that the pool of donors was only getting smaller in America, consolidating the power to less and less interest groups and corporations. Like Rep. Sarbanes, former Councilman Andrews made it his mission to “amplify the voice of average voters,” he said to the crowd. In Montgomery County, Andrews passed a law that was quite similar to Sarbanes’ idea on matching funds in which politicians can now accept public funds only if they have not accepted a donation of over $150. With the new law, the county can now offer up to $750,000 in public matching funds for an executive race.