Rebalance the Rules for Our Democracy

Rebalance the Rules for Our Democracy
AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

Last week, congressional Democrats put forward “A Better Deal,” with policies focused on easing economic burdens and helping American workers get ahead. But economic inequality and political inequality are inextricably linked. To rebalance power in our government and enact economic policies that work for working Americans, we first need to restructure the rules of our democracy. 

One of the greatest threats to our remarkable experiment in democracy, anticipated by our founders, is corruption in our political system. John Adams captured this concern when he wrote: “Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men.” Adams and his fellow revolutionaries realized the dangerous potential for special interests to monopolize our government and to poison the public’s trust. Today, we can see their fears playing out right before our eyes.  

Our elections have become increasingly dominated by corporate money and special interests, particularly since the United States Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Citizens United. It’s no secret that many people think Washington only works for the wealthy and the well-connected. Yet large, bipartisan majorities believe that the federal government should have a major role in advancing the common good.

Progressive leaders must seize this moment to set forth a strong, clear agenda for curbing corruption and strengthening responsiveness and accountability within our government. We need to move away from a political system rife with conflicts of interest toward new rules for democracy that facilitate fair representation for all. This path forward will not only show Americans that progressives are fighting for them; it will also help restore faith in our democratic institutions.  

First, we must demand transparency and responsibility from our highest-ranking officials. Any president and vice president, regardless of their political party, should be required to divest themselves completely from their personal financial conflicts of interest. And President Trump should stop hiding his tax records so the public has a clearer understanding of whether his administration’s proposals are benefitting his own bottom line.

Second, we can rein in the power of corporate lobbyists significantly along with the influence that special interests have on policymaking. These reforms should include placing limits on the ability of lobbyists to fundraise campaign contributions, closing loopholes that allow so-called shadow lobbying, and enacting tougher ethics rules that regulate industry lobbyists who move into official government roles. In addition, members of Congress should be barred from accepting financial support from industries they oversee. 

Third, we must take decisive action to end the corrupting influence of secret and foreign money. Since 2010, more than $900 million of secret political spending has spread through our elections, providing unknown donors with the chance to stack the deck for themselves with virtual impunity. In addition to robbing voters of the information they need to make educated decisions, this presents a huge national security risk, since foreign nationals can circumvent the laws and influence our elections.

Fourth, we should rebuild our campaign finance systems to amplify the voices of working and middle-class families as well as reduce the reliance of elected officials on the wealthiest few. Citizen-funded elections, where small donations from voters are matched with public funds, are already boosting representation in cities such as New York and Seattle and states such as Connecticut, Arizona, and Maine. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has introduced strong small-donor legislation in the Senate. We should build on these efforts. 

Fifth, we need to defend and expand equal voting rights for all citizens. It’s time to advance common sense, pro-voter policies such as automatic voter registration (AVR). Recent analysis from the Center for American Progress shows that Oregon’s first-in-the-nation AVR program has already had a significant impact in expanding the electorate by improving participation among young people, residents of racially diverse neighborhoods and rural communities, and Americans of modest means. Furthermore, we need to continue to fight voter suppression practices — including strict voter ID requirements, illegal voter purging, and barring voters with criminal records — that disproportionately prevent people of color from casting their ballots. 

Finally, we must invest in the security of America’s election infrastructure and defend against unprecedented attacks from a Russian regime notorious for undermining the integrity of democratic elections. This requires minimum cybersecurity standards, voter-verified paper ballots, and mandatory risk-limiting post-election audits to keep the elections through which we govern ourselves free and fair. 

As progressives, we’re committed to creating a government that prioritizes fairness and economic opportunity for all, not just the interests of billionaires and big businesses. If we want a resilient democratic society, we must rebalance the rules so that every American has an equal voice and fair representation in our government.

Liz Kennedy is the Director of Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress.

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