Are lobbyists trying to gut Biden's budget? No one knows – and that's the problem

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Joe Biden’s Build Back Better reconciliation bill has been stuck in limbo – and conservative Democrats are in fundraising heaven.

Are lobbyists trying to gut Biden’s budget? No one knows – and that’s the problem
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who raised more than $400,000 from the oil and gas industry while the bill was being negotiated, is now poised to gut Biden’s clean-energy plan. Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema spent the summer and fall collecting checks from corporate groups and Trump donors who oppose the Biden agenda, then helped cut the size of the reconciliation package by approximately half.

Related: Biden’s budget could transform life for working women. Don’t let Manchin gut it | Moira Donegan

Political horse-trading is nothing new, and the version of Build Back Better that seems likely to pass would improve tens of millions of American lives. But there’s still something unseemly about the way this bill has been negotiated. Were the Senate’s holdouts demanding a principled compromise? Acting out of genuine concern for their constituents’ interests? Or were they trading favors for campaign cash?

It’s impossible to know for certain which provisions, if any, were cut because of wealthy campaign donors. But that’s precisely the problem, and it goes far beyond one bill and two senators. Our campaign finance system – one that has existed for barely more than a decade – makes it nearly impossible to distinguish between politics-as-usual, influence peddling and outright bribery. That’s not just a threat to individual policies or pieces of legislation. It’s a threat to public trust in our system of government, and by extension, to democracy itself.

For most of the last half-century, it was widely understood that democracy depends upon voters’ trust that their representatives will represent them. That’s why, in 1976, the supreme court ruled that the public interest was served not just by preventing corruption, but by preventing “the appearance of corruption”. The court’s decision made both legal and intuitive sense: if voters decide that the political process is corrupt, they’ll stop engaging with the political process, thus reducing public accountability and opening the door to more corruption.

Are lobbyists trying to gut Biden’s budget? No one knows – and that’s the problem
© Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP ‘Joe Manchin, who raised more than $400,000 from the oil and gas industry while the bill was being negotiated, is poised to gut Biden’s clean-energy plan.’

But in 2010, a new, far more conservative supreme court took a completely different view. “We now conclude,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in Citizens United, “that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” In a series of follow-on decisions, the court’s rightwing majority expanded on this idea: not that the appearance of corruption was good, but that no amount of money in politics could possibly appear corrupt.

In the real world, the court’s assertion was almost immediately proven false. In a divided country, one thing Americans can agree on is that rich people and corporations have way too much political power. According to the Pew Research Center, for example, 90% of Americans think it’s important for society that wealthy donors have no more influence than other people – but just 26% of people think that is now the case. A handful of justices chose to ignore the “appearance of corruption”, but it hasn’t gone away just because a conservative supreme court closed its eyes.

Fortunately, even in the Citizens United era, there are ways to reduce the political influence of corporate donors and wealthy individuals – and to restore Americans’ faith that government can work for the people.

First, we can make it more difficult for lawmakers and wealthy interests to engage in outright, quid-pro-quo corruption. Just this week, a grand jury indicted Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican, for allegedly lying to federal investigators about $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions. This development was remarkable precisely because it was so rare. It’s an open secret that even the campaign finance laws that remain postCitizens United are broken with impunity. (Two years into his presidency, Donald Trump himself tweeted that campaign finance violations “are not a crime”.) If law enforcement investigated and prosecuted corruption more aggressively, lawmakers might become more careful about crossing, or merely approaching, legal lines.

Second, we can do what election law expert Rick Hasen calls “leveling up”. Rather than limiting the amount of corporate money in politics – an impossibility so long as conservatives control the court – we can give ordinary Americans more influence. So-called “democracy vouchers” could give voters tax credits for small-dollar donations to causes they believe in. We could also increase the amount of public funds available for candidates who agree not to take private donations. (Lest anyone try to paint this as some kind of socialist plot, Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and George W Bush all accepted taxpayer dollars to fund their campaigns.)

These changes won’t undo all the damage caused by the Citizen United ruling. But they will help stem the tide

Finally, we can limit the influence of the other side of the influence-peddling equation: lobbying. In the Citizens United era, corporations and wealthy individuals can spend unlimited sums of money on politicians’ campaigns, then spend unlimited sums of money on lobbyists who ask those same politicians for highly specific favors. It’s hard to imagine a system better suited to erode Americans’ trust in their elected officials. But imagine a sliding-scale tax on registered lobbying, far stricter disclosure requirements on corporate political spending, or perhaps even an Office of Public Lobbying to advocate for groups well-represented in America but poorly funded on Capitol Hill.

These changes won’t undo all the damage caused by conservative justices’ Citizen United ruling. But they will help stem the tide. They would give candidates without access to deep-pocketed donors a more level playing field. They would give lawmakers like Manchin and Sinema an alternative to funding their campaigns via wealthy interests – and no excuse not to take it. Most of all, they would give Americans more confidence that the legislative process, while never straightforward or without compromise, is designed to benefit all the people, and not just a privileged few.

Democracy is not just under attack from insurrectionists who would commit political violence or would-be autocrats who would overturn an election. It’s under attack from those who seek to undermine its central promise – that representative government can make a positive difference in people’s lives.

Ultimately, reducing the influence of corporate and megadonor money isn’t about smoothing the next reconciliation bill’s passage, or even fixing a broken campaign-finance system. It’s about bolstering the American republic as it faces its toughest test in decades.

  • David Litt is an American political speechwriter and New York Times bestselling author of Thanks Obama, and Democracy in One Book or Less. He edits How Democracy Lives, a newsletter on democracy reform

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