With still more than a year until Election Day, the infestation of our airwaves with ads paid for by billionaire-backed super PACs is already well underway. As the American public braces itself for yet another election that will be “the most expensive yet,” one thing is clear: political campaigns in America have become glorified auctions for special-interest bidders. Sadly, the result is that Americans are rapidly losing faith in our democracy.
A recent poll conducted by Bloomberg shows that 87% of Americans think our campaign finance system should be reformed to curb the influence of wealthy donors, with 78% saying specifically that they disapprove of the unlimited corporate spending unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.
But voters aren’t the only ones dismayed by the direction that America’s elections are heading: many candidates too have publicly lamented the outsize role that campaign spending now plays in our electoral process. Unfortunately, when it comes to the question of what can be done to make races more accountable to the people, candidates often act as if their hands are tied.
At a recent campaign event at Cornell College, Hillary Clinton told students that she wished super PACs would be banned, but then quickly added in the next breath that “I and others have said we’re not going to unilaterally disarm.”
It doesn’t take a campaign expert to understand Clinton’s logic. She won’t “unilaterally disarm” because it would leave her vulnerable to attack by the well-funded super PACs supporting her opponents. The unfortunate reality is that for Clinton, as for most candidates, unilateral action is just too dangerous to consider.
But it’s not the only option.
If Clinton or other candidates really wanted to get super PACs out of this election, there is a simple tool they could use to do it: a bilateral pledge between opposing candidates to eliminate super PAC spending.
This kind of pledge has worked before, and it could work again. In the Massachusetts 2012 Senate race, Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown proved that when candidates are serious about curbing the influence of super PACs on their race, they can work together to make it happen.
In an agreement known as the People’s Pledge, Warren and Brown made a mutual promise to reject the support of super PACs. They pledged that if a super PAC spent money to support either of their campaigns, whoever benefited from the expenditure would offset it by forfeiting money from their own campaign coffers. The idea was new, bold, and bilateral, and it changed the calculus of spending in the race.
Because super PACs saw that making expenditures to support Warren or Brown would ultimately hurt them, it no longer made sense for super PACs to spend money in the race. As a result, the People’s Pledge successfully eliminated virtually all super PAC spending, and it helped to cut the volume of negative advertising – which super PAC money almost exclusively buys – in half. In short, with the mere stroke of a pen, Warren and Brown gave the people of Massachusetts a substantially more accountable race.
But even beyond the tangible impact that the pledge had on the Massachusetts election, it showed that when it comes to the issue of campaign spending, candidates’ hands are not tied. For any candidate who really wants to do something about super PACs, taking a bilateral pledge such as the one that Warren and Brown pioneered is a real, actionable option.
Already this cycle, the war chests of super PACs have surpassed $250 million, with multiples of that still to come. Candidates can say all the right things about wanting to stop the undue influence of these special-interest spending machines, but unless they take real action, super PACs are sure to wreak havoc on the integrity of our election next year.
It’s time for any candidate who says they want to do something about super PAC spending to put their money where their mouth is. A bilateral “no outside spending” pledge is a powerful tool available to all candidates that has the potential to stem the flood of super PAC money – all it requires are candidates who are willing to do the right thing.
In this dark moment in the history of American democracy, what we need are real leaders who will fight to ensure that our elections are about the voices of everyday voters, not just wealthy donors. Who will stand up?
Jay Costa is the Executive Director of CounterPAC, a nonpartisan organization working to create incentives for candidates to run more accountable campaigns.