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Better Politics Are Possible

Dollar bills

by TJ Rooney and Alan Novak

If you watch cable news, if you’re on social media, if you get political ads, you’ve seen how brutal politics can be. The negativity in politics is pervasive and relentless, making it seem like there’s no room for compromise and that the two sides have nothing in common.

However, if you look beyond the fringes of the political spectrum, you’ll find a significant point of agreement: the urgent need for campaigns to change.

We know this because we’ve been leaders in both political parties. Over the years, we’ve had battles. That’s normal. We don’t have to agree on everything; healthy debate is good for democracy. What is not good for democracy is hundreds of millions of dollars of untraceable money influencing those debates.

In the 2010 Citizens United decision, the U.S Supreme Court ruled that the state and federal government can no longer set limits on how much money is spent by corporations and other entities for political purposes, and immediately the ceiling of campaign finance blew off.

Fast forward to today, it’s not out of the question to see half of a billion dollars spent on Senate races and every year that number increases. Here in Pennsylvania, the 2022 Pennsylvania Senate race cost $420 million dollars; that same race in 2010 cost only $80 million. It’s not just the absurd amount of money that is galling; the fact that we know so little about it is truly terrifying.

The vast majority of political spending now is “dark money” spending – virtually untraceable funds funneled through 501 (c)(4) or (c)(6) organizations. We don’t know who or where the donors are coming from and we don’t know why it’s coming, but we do know it has caused the American people to lose faith that our government works for We The People, rather than moneyed special interests.

Campaigns used to be focused on winning votes, and that’s why when we chaired our respective parties, we reached out to voters. We prioritized knocking on doors, talking to voters – direct contact between candidates and the people they sought to represent. But in this new system of pay-to-play politics, candidates are required to spend more time courting donors than voters – just to keep up.

The billions being spent by mysterious organizations with vague names, running commercials intended to frighten us into supporting one candidate or another is a fearsome foe in modern campaigns, and candidates feel forced to partake in this system if they want any chance of winning an election.

What’s even worse is that these dark money organizations aren’t all funded by folks in Pennsylvania – or even this country. The amount of influence being sought by foreign corporations and governments is mind-boggling. And it’s all perfectly legal under our current system.

But we do have a way through – and it’s something Americans from all political parties have gotten behind: A constitutional amendment to allow States and Congress to set reasonable limits on political spending.

This is a tactic that has been used 27 times over the nearly 250-year history of this country and it’s not something to take lightly – but if we don’t act now, we could become completely overwhelmed by dark money and lose any momentum to fight it.

The For Our Freedom Amendment would give the ability to set reasonable guardrails on campaign finance laws back to the states. If the For Our Freedom Amendment is ratified to the U.S. Constitution, Pennsylvania lawmakers would once again have the power to make changes such as forbidding foreign influence in our elections and capping the amount spent for political purposes. We could return the power of the vote to the voter.

Voters want to see this. Recent polling here shows that 93% of Pennsylvanians agree that there is too much spending in politics and that something needs to be done about dark money. In fact, there are bipartisan and bicameral resolutions in the General Assembly right now that call for Congress to pass the For Our Freedom amendment.

Politics hasn’t always been this way, and it doesn’t have to remain like this. Elections shouldn’t be decided by out-of-state billionaires and mysterious wealthy donors hiding behind shell organizations. By reclaiming our power and eliminating the influence of dark money, we can return to a time of reasonable policy debates. Those days are not as distant as they seem. We remember them fondly and yearn to go back to that kind of political discourse.

Without the distraction of campaign cash, we can disagree, compromise, and work together on the issues that matter most to Pennsylvanians. Everyone will benefit from this change.

 

Rooney is the former chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. Novak is the former chair of the Pennsylvania GOP. They are now partners with Rooney Isenhour Novak Group

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