Rep. Dean Phillips: Clean up our campaign finance system

January 21, 2020 6:00 am

Rep. Dean Phillps, a first term DFL congressman, represents Minnesota’s Third District, which comprises the west metro.

Editor’s note: Tuesday is the 10th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. 

When I speak to groups visiting Washington, D.C. or to my constituents back home as I travel around my west metro district, I often start by telling them something that most find surprising: I love my job.

This usually elicits laughter — understandably, given the current state of affairs — but it’s true. As I reflect on my first year representing Minnesota’s Third District in Congress, I do so with deep gratitude for the opportunity to serve in these historic times. I have made lasting friendships, met people and visited places I never would have encountered before, and achieved several legislative successes along the way.

Still, there’s no denying the fact that Congress is broken, and our politics are in serious need of repair. I speak often about the deficiencies of the social and physical design of Congress, as well as the rules that govern our process and procedures. For now, however, I’d like to focus on the single most important impediment to meaningful progress at the federal level: money in politics.

We have legalized corruption in our country through our laws and through our acceptance of a campaign finance system and general culture that requires — and even rewards — the relentless pursuit of money. Most members of Congress spend between 20 and 30 hours per week dialing for dollars. Collectively, that equates to 10,000 to 15,000 hours per week spent raising money, even when Congress is in session.

This means that members of Congress have virtually no time to interact with each other, let alone the people they represent — especially those of modest means. This in turn contributes to the hyper-partisanship that is driving the dysfunction in Congress and deepening the divisions in our country — which in turn causes more people to disengage from the political process entirely.

These are serious — and possibly existential — challenges to our democracy. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s not too late to fix it — starting with the very first bill of the 116th Congress: H.R.1, the For the People Act.

H.R.1 is an expansive voter protection and campaign finance and ethics reform package. It would expand voter participation in our elections by making it easier for eligible voters to cast their ballots, including by making Election Day a national holiday. It would reduce the influence of money in politics by requiring stricter disclosure requirements and creating a public financing system that would empower small donors. And it would enhance our ethical standards by slowing the revolving door between government and lobbying and enhancing the disclosure rules that govern members of Congress as well as lobbyists.

To most Minnesotans — and huge majorities of Americans, according to public opinion polls — these are commonsense proposals. And yet, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared H.R.1 dead-on-arrival, calling it a Democratic “power grab.”

I have often said that we do not have a hardware problem. What we have is a software problem, meaning that we need more elected representatives in Congress — especially in the Senate — who are willing to place the common interest ahead of narrow self-interest and make commonsense reform a priority.

As a vice chair of the Democracy Reform Task Force — and a proud cosponsor of H.R.1 — I am doing what I can to lead the charge for reform on the inside. What we need are people like you — and millions more across the country to cast your ballots in November for others who are willing to join us.

For that reason, even if campaign finance reform is not your top priority in the upcoming election, I encourage you to make it your number two issue. Chances are, nothing meaningful will happen on the issue you care most about without making real progress on campaign finance and ethics reform — and that begins with H.R.1.

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Dean Phillips
Dean Phillips

Rep. Dean Phillips is a DFL congressman representing the Third Congressional District in the west metro.