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Rep. Ellison’s big idea for cleaning up campaign finance

Rep. Keith Ellison

WASHINGTON — Liberal lawmakers like Rep. Keith Ellison are well aware the ambitious, idealistic bills they’re pitching this year have little to no chance in a Republican-controlled U.S. House.

But that’s not stopping them from pleading their case anyway.

“The energy you gather from just organizing transfers into the next session,” Ellison said Wednesday after rallying with progressive activists and lawmakers over their latest project. “If we get a majority then, then the moment might be right, but if we don’t organize on the front end, it would be one of those great ideas that should have passed but never does because we just didn’t have enough forces to do it.”

The “great idea” Ellison and colleagues were discussing Wednesday is a massive overhaul of the campaign finance system, looking to encourage candidates to move away from big-dollar donors by subsidizing both U.S. House campaigns and those who contribute to them.

The “Government by the People Act” would provide six-to-one matches for all donations worth less than $150, as long as candidates don’t self-fund, refuse most PAC money and, most importantly, decline donations over $1,000. To encourage more small-dollar donors, individuals could receive up to $25 in tax refunds for giving to campaigns, provided they don’t give more than $300 to a candidate in a cycle.

As the law stands now, there are no matching funds for federal elections (though some states and municipalities have them) and anyone who’s clicked on a campaign’s big, shiny “donate” button has seen some boilerplate disclaimer warning that “contributions are not deductible for federal income tax purposes.” Individuals can contribute up to $2,600 to candidates for both primary and general election campaigns and this bill wouldn’t change that, though campaigns would be very much incentivized to ignore these big donors.

Lawmakers say the goal is to move candidates to small donors and do away with any sense of obligation they may feel to contributors who have money to spread around come election season. Ellison argued campaign finance laws leading to a “political inequality” that favors those with deep enough pockets to prop up candidates.

“The economic inequality actually causes a political inequality because the dollars go to buy political influence in various numbers of ways,” he said. “This has had a corrosive effect on our democracy, which I believe has a corrosive effect on who we are as a people.”

Make no mistake, this bill would be expensive (bill sponsors offered no price point or payment mechanism on Wednesday), expand a government agency (the FEC), and create a new federal subsidy program — so it’s going nowhere in this Congress.

But proponents say such this system would give a leg up to both new candidates and would-be challengers who might not have incumbents’ well-connected fundraising networks. Candidates who already rely on a large grassroots following would benefit, too, and Ellison said it could lead to candidates who run on more niche ideas that might otherwise scare away big donors (though they couldn’t be too far outside the mainstream – matching funds wouldn’t kick in for candidates unless they can raise $50,000 from at least 1,000 in-state donors first).

The legislation hits two of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s four main post-Citizens United reform goals: enhanced contribution disclosures, a constitutional amendment to give Congress more regulatory power, full-scale campaign finance reform and “empowering” citizens to take a more active role in the political process.

It’s highly unlikely lawmakers will take up anything remotely related to that agenda this year, though Ellison said he suspects some Republicans would welcome the chance to cut loose their big-donors — who, themselves, might appreciate “feeling more like a citizen than a piggy bank,” he said.

But what would a bill like this do for candidates if it were in effect right now? Has Ellison crunched the numbers to see what it would do for his re-election efforts?

“I’ve looked at [the bill] as a matter of principle, and I’m all in,” he said. “But I haven’t looked at how it affects me. Maybe I should, but I don’t really care.”

Doing the math

Well, I wanted to know, so I got in touch with Ellison’s campaign staff, who did some calculations and sent me the numbers I needed to find out what this bill would do to Ellison’s fundraising if it was in effect right now.

What follows is a little back-of-the-envelope math to broadly illustrate the effects of a probably-never-going-to-happen bill — so take this all with a grain of salt.

The Ellison campaign has received more than $909,000 in contributions this year, the third most among Minnesota U.S. House members seeking re-election. But in order to receive matching funds under this bill, lawmakers have to forgo self-financing, PAC money and donations worth more than $1,000.

Ellison hasn’t self-funded, so there’s no change there. He’s taken in about $150,000 in PAC money, so we’ll cut that out – now we’re at $759,429.95. And according to his staff, he’s received $101,450.00 from people who have already given him $1,000 (in other words, if you had five $1,100 donors, the size of this pool of money would be $500). Assuming those donors would still give the maximum $1,000 allowed — but not anything more — we’ll take that amount out: Ellison has received $657,979.95 in donations worth less than $1,000. He’s now eligible for matching funds.

According to the Ellison campaign, he’s received $340,459.75 in donations worth $150 or less, each of which is eligible for a six-to-one match under this bill. I don’t have the breakdown for the individual contributions included in this pool, so I just matched the whole amount at six-to-one, which comes to $2,042,818.50.

Add together the matched funds, the principle $150 donations and the remaining $317,520.20, and under the Government by the People Act, Ellison would have brought in more than $2.7 million for his re-election campaign in 2013, thanks to small donors and a public financing system.

There is a $3.25 million cap on the amount of matching funds candidates could take, which would require raising about $541,700 from these under-$150 donors. So if this bill became law, candidates would face a dilemma at the beginning of their campaigns: Do they want to stick with their small donors, knowing they could get a $3.25 million subsidy from the government, or do they go the big donor route and hope to raise even more than that?

It’s unlikely they’ll have to make that choice any time soon, since Congress would first have to pass this bill, which it certainly won’t this year. But Ellison and progressives are going to rally around it anyway, hoping that they’ll get their chance someday.

“It’s in the heartland of the progressive vision for what campaign finance looks like,” Ellison said.

Devin Henry can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry

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Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/06/2014 - 09:48 am.

    Haven’t we already seen

    a similar effort fail at the presidential level?

  2. Submitted by mark wallek on 02/06/2014 - 11:07 am.

    Too complicated

    This is much too complicated. The key is make it simple. Do not allow ANY private money in. Each candidate is given EQUAL monies. NO ADVERTIZING. No computer tabulation. In the months before elections, as a cost of doing business in America, ALL media broadcasting networks will carry debates multiple times a week (this number can be decided). A closed loop system is the only one that we can be sure is safe from the green grease of corruption.

  3. Submitted by Matt Haas on 02/06/2014 - 11:09 am.

    Noble effort

    But what will be needed in the end is a constitutional amendment making all elective office campaigns a strictly publicly financed affair. The recent actions of Supreme Court reaffirm this fact. Whether that will ever happen is debatable, but nibbling at the edges, or even sweeping ambitious measures like this will eventually find themselves dashed against the rocky shores of Judge Roberts and his merry band of corporatist henchmen.

    • Submitted by Lora Jones on 02/06/2014 - 02:43 pm.

      Which is why we need a constitional amendment

      stating simply “Money is not speech and corporations are not persons.”

  4. Submitted by David Frenkel on 02/06/2014 - 11:53 am.

    Special Interest money

    Washington, DC is flush with special interest money. Better idea is to nibble on the influence of lobbyists like banning government entities from having lobbyists,

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/06/2014 - 01:59 pm.

      That would be a violation of the First Amendment

      “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, *and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.*

      Which is what a lobbyist does.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 02/06/2014 - 03:50 pm.


        But we can stipulate that it must be an unpaid position. Nothing in the bill of rights stating that your redress must come in the form of a compensated spokesperson.

      • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 02/07/2014 - 01:15 pm.

        The First Amendment

        Is not absolute; a law constraining its exercise simply must rest on a “compelling state interest.” There is no more compelling state interest than an election system that is capable of producing representatives who represent the will of the people, i.e., than preserving democracy. The failure to recognize this is the fundamental error of Buckley v. Valeo and decisions following, which rest on the proposition that democracy must bow to free speech.

        • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/07/2014 - 02:10 pm.

          “Democracy” doesn’t appear

          in the constitution, but free speech does. We’re a constitutional republic, meaning the Constitution takes precedence over the vote. Consequently, “democracy must bow to free speech.”

          • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 02/07/2014 - 02:26 pm.

            A multitude of public welfare concerns

            Are not named in the Constitution but nevertheless have been deemed by the higher federal courts to constitute “compelling state interests” sufficient to support constraints on individual rights named in the Bill of Rights. Your idiosyncratic reading that the Constitution is indifferent to our form of government might make for interesting debate over a glass of whiskey, but it is irrelevant to the question at hand, which is whether under well-established principles of constitutional law the people, through their representative government, can restrict spending in politics (that is, but for the erroneous Buckley and its progeny).

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/07/2014 - 03:45 pm.

          Democracy bowing to free speech

          Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. The will of the people means nothing if they can’t speak or communicate about it, or petition their representatives for the redress of grievances.

          • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 02/07/2014 - 05:30 pm.

            A straw argument.

            Clearly, free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Just as clearly, absolute free speech, in proportion to the number of dollars one has, is destructive of a functioning democracy. (To put it another way, absolute free speech for the few renders the “will of the people” nugatory and their representatives deaf to their petitions for redress.)

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/08/2014 - 02:16 pm.

              True enough

              Your argument, however, comes back on itself. Who gets to decide what the “will of the people” truly is? If we establish some cut-off for which voices can be heard, how are we ever going to know what the people are thinking? The ability of money to fashion itself a megaphone is, I hate to say it, an inherent flaw in our system.

              BTW, before you ask, I think Citizens United was the fourth worst Supreme Court decision in history.

              • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 02/09/2014 - 09:48 am.

                I really think that my point

                is pedestrian and obvious. Each of our freedoms (freedom of expression and conscience, freedom of association, economic freedom, freedom to maintain privacy, artistic freedom, etc) is essential to a free society, but if allowed to be exercised without constraint, can lead to our unfreedom. We always should prefer individual moral reflection, culture, natural incentives and other “uncoerced” mechanisms to secure the proper equilibrium of society, but ultimately, in various spheres, these will not suffice and the coercion of law is necessary. And long-standing doctrines of constitutional law recognize this – there are no rights absolutely protected from legislative contouring.

                Indeed it is hard to draw the lines, but that is what self-government is about. And it certainly would be easier if the voting public were a bit more informed, thoughtful and morally reflective, and our governing bodies, consequently, a bit less corrupt and incompetent.

                I’m intrigued that you have a ranking of worst U.S. Supreme Court decisions. I’ve got a bundle but I haven’t ordered them. The list seems to grow at a faster pace these days.

  5. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 02/06/2014 - 01:41 pm.

    “this bill would be expensive”

    No, what’s ACTUALLY expensive is corporations in virtually complete control of all legislation in and out of the national legislatures.

    For just one tiny little example, this morning on NPR was a discussion which included a comparison of drug prices in the EU vs the United States.

    Drug prices can be 40% lower in the EU, according to that source.

    Why ? The EU NEGOTIATES prices with the drug companies, so the EU pays a lower price.

    However, the citizens of the United States pay a huge premium over the EU for drugs BECAUSE OF the actions of our elected national legislators – elected under the influence of the corporate entities with an interest in high drug prices.

    A further example is the design of Medicare Part D, which resulted in higher prices across the whole spectrum of drugs when compared with Medicaid. What was the rationale ? Republicans behind the bill said the marketplace would better look out for the interests of consumers, a dissemblance contrived to get the higher revenues for their client, the pharmaceutical industry. Not that the Republicans were alone in this servility.


    The drug companies virtually write the legislation affecting their industry, as they virtually own the Congress. They’ve got the money, and the ROI on money spent buying up pockets full of Congressmen and Senators is the best investment an industry can make in this economy. Nothing else comes close.

    These are just small examples of how much political corruption enabled by campaign finance laws costs us. Spread across the full reach of legislative and regulatory power centralized in Washington, the cost is absolutely, hair-raisingly ENORMOUS. If we’re going to bandy terms like “expensive” around, let’s identify the source of the most significant expenses.

    The cost of Mr. Ellison’s proposal is a pittance by comparison with the cost of political influence procured by campaign contributions.

  6. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/06/2014 - 07:43 pm.

    So if I understand this correctly

    The federal government will give money (from my taxes) to candidates that I would never support in a million years, and will also give your tax money to the candidates that you would never support in a million years.

    And, as I always add when accusations of campaign money buying votes or legislators, please name names of those representatives being bribed so that we may prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/06/2014 - 09:30 pm.


      It certainly was forthcoming from Ellison to admit that $1,000 was the price at which he would start listening to you.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 02/07/2014 - 09:42 am.

      “please name names”

      See a list of members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Every last single one plays this game.

      “prosecute to the fullest extent of the law” – I guess your pretense here is that political corruption must be against the law. But in its most effective and subtle forms, it is not only NOT illegal, it is protected by the law, ala SCOTUS, as political speech.

      Since the gross forms of bribery and corruption, such as in the ABSCAM sting or Jack Abramoff’s consultancy, ARE illegal, the methods and means are ever more slippery.

      See an interview, “How To Buy Your Own Congressperson” by Mr. Abramoff, in which he says, “…I think most congressmen don’t feel they’re being bought. Most congressmen, I think, can in their own mind justify the system.”

      If the Congressmen themselves don’t see the corruption, it comes as no surprise that people like yourself don’t see it either. You just have to open your eyes.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/07/2014 - 06:27 pm.

        But I do see it!

        That’s why I want the names. I see the corruption and I want Amy and Al to admit that as much as they rail against the “special interests” and “big money”, that they are as guilty as they charge everyone else as being. I’m glad that at least one other person can see this hypocrisy!

        Since Senator Amy is the best at proposing legislation after the fact, maybe she will sponsor a bill to state that it is illegal to take money in exchange for votes (since apparently it is not illegal now).

        Corruption is not a game, maybe it is this view that has gotten us to this point.

        • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 02/08/2014 - 09:12 am.

          Yes, Minnesota’s Senators do NOT get a pass here.

          Whether they are likable, high-minded, or mere poseurs is beside the point.

          I agree with your point entirely. The problem is, now that we’ve got the names, it turns out our laws don’t make their conduct illegal.

          Real public campaign financing would be a terrific bargain. The way it works now, the officeholders owe their contributors after the election, and they owe the most to their largest contributors. If WE finance their entire campaign, they will owe US, which is exactly how it should be.

          • Submitted by Jon Lord on 02/09/2014 - 08:47 am.

            I agree with public financing “only”

            I would like to see a level playing field myself. It’d go far in encouraging a real democratic process without politicians feeling they owe their contributors special favors.

            We aren’t a democracy even though we really, really like to say we are. We like to say we want to bring democracy to all, or at least certain, countries but we aren’t one ourselves. We’re a bit confused about that for the most part. What we are is a constitutional republic. Most Americans don’t know that, or what it means. The word “democracy” is pretty much meaningless as we know it. Somehow…a whole lot of us don’t like most democratic countries. Maybe it’s just because they aren’t like us.

            The Koch brothers are massive contributors to their tea party favorites and have created many different PACS to funnel money to. They favor at the very least a Plutocracy where the Wealthy control the government. In order to ‘fight’ against big money interests, every politician ‘must’ strive to counter with public PACS of their own. It really does come down to “if you don’t have the money you aren’t going to play”.

  7. Submitted by Tom van der Linden on 02/07/2014 - 08:47 am.

    Another envelope calc

    Devin, how would this have pencilled out for a candidate like Ms Bachmann?

  8. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/07/2014 - 11:39 am.

    Wonderful introduction to ways to get the Little Guys back in the campaigns again.

    Let the discussion and debate begin. Way to go, Rep. Ellison!

  9. Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/07/2014 - 08:15 pm.

    How quickly

    you’re prepared to surrender your own rights and the rights of others.

    Re: no private funds: Shall we ban letters to the editor, news articles on candidates and editorial endorsements of candidates? Perhaps we should abolish the right to peacefully assemble and petition the government for redress. Or, perhaps, we should simply limit these rights to people with less than a stated net worth or annual income.

    It’s not corporations you fear, it’s big corporations with lots of money. How do you feel about big, unincorporated organizations with lots of money? For that matter, what’s the difference between the GOP and 3M or the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO?

    I swear, the left is as bad as the right when it comes to trying to limit others’ influence on the political process.

  10. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 02/09/2014 - 08:29 pm.

    Two Ways to Reduce Corruption


    There are two ways to solve the problem. One is to increase the number of campaign donors by giving them tax breaks, which seems to be part of the “Government by the People Act.” I think that’s fine, but a fairer and more effective solution would be to limit the number of dollars per donor, across the board. I made the following proposals over two years ago and still think they’re pretty good.

    1. I would allow each candidate running for public office to receive no more than $5 per contributor.

    2. I would also require every major broadcaster to devote 10 hours of free airtime to multi-partisan debates in each election cycle, moderated by the League of Women Voters.

    3. Full disclosure of funding for all paid speech of every kind, political or not, would include a “Surgeon General’s warning” on every paid advertisement, indicating the number of people who actually endorsed the ad with their own signatures. A full list of these signatures would be available to any citizen upon request, provided by the broadcaster or newspaper publisher who ran the ad.

    4. The penalty for a violation of these rules would be (1) permanent banishment from public office, (2) permanent revocation of a broadcasting license, or (3) a fee equal to 100 times the cost of the ad, respectively.

    If necessary, we should amend the Constitution to make these three reforms constitutional.

    Note that reform (3) gives the government no power to decide what is or is not an “advocacy” ad or an “issue” ad, because it covers all advertisements, whether they are political or commercial. Therefore, it is purely content-neutral.

    No sponsor of an ad of any kind is entitled to anonymity, no more than anybody who signs a petition is entitled to use a pseudonym. In a democracy, the people must count. If they are not counted, then we have no reliable measure of what is popular, and nothing to challenge the illusion of popularity that advertising money creates for proposals that favor only the superrich.

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