Better policy is possible

by TJ Rooney and Alan Novak

If you watch cable news, if you apply social media, if you get political ads, you’ve seen how brutal politics can be. Negativity in politics is pervasive and unrelenting, making it seem like there is no room for compromise and that both sides have nothing in common.

But if you look beyond the ends of the political spectrum, you’ll find a significant point of agreement: the urgent need for change in campaigns.

We know this because we were leaders of both political parties. We have had battles over the years. It’s normal. We don’t have to agree on everything; fit debate is good for democracy. What is not good for democracy is the hundreds of millions of dollars of untraceable money flowing into these debates.

In the 2010 Citizens United decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state and federal governments could no longer set limits on how corporations and other entities can spend money for political purposes, and the campaign finance cap was immediately struck down.

Fast forward to the present: it’s possible that half a billion dollars has been spent on Senate races, and that number continues to grow every year. Here in Pennsylvania, the 2022 Pennsylvania Senate race cost $420 million; the same race in 2010 cost only $80 million. It’s not just the absurd amount of money that’s irritating; the fact that we know so little about it is truly terrifying.

The huge majority of political spending today is “dark money” – virtually untraceable funds channeled 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 that it has caused Americans to lose faith that our government works for We The People and not for special interests making money.

Campaigns used to be focused on getting votes, and that’s why when we led our parties, we went out to voters. Our priority was to knock on doors, talk to voters – direct contact between candidates and the people they wanted to represent. But under the fresh system of pay-to-play politics, candidates must spend more time courting donors than voters just to keep up.

The billions spent by shadowy organizations with concealed names running ads designed to scare us into supporting this or that candidate is a terrifying enemy of current campaigns, and candidates feel compelled to participate in this system if they want to have any chance of winning the election.

Worse yet, not all of these obscure money organizations are funded by people from Pennsylvania – or even this country. The scale of influence sought by foreign corporations and governments is astonishing. And all of this is completely legal under our current system.

But we have a solution that Americans of all political parties support: 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 in this country’s nearly 250-year history and should not be taken lightly – but if we don’t act now, we could become completely overwhelmed by obscure money and lose momentum. Fight it.

The For Our Freedom amendment would allow reasonable barriers to be placed on campaign finance laws back to the states. If the For Our Freedom Amendment is ratified into the U.S. Constitution, Pennsylvania lawmakers will once again have the power to make changes such as banning foreign influence in our elections and limiting the amount of money spent on political purposes. We could give the voter back the power to vote.

Voters want to see this. A recent poll shows that 93% of Pennsylvanians agree that there is too much political spending and that something needs to be done about obscure money. In fact, there are currently bipartisan and bicameral resolutions in the General Assembly calling on Congress to pass the For Our Freedom Amendment.

Politics hasn’t always been this way, and it doesn’t have to stay this way. Elections should not be decided by out-of-state billionaires and mysterious wealthy donors hiding behind shell organizations. By regaining power and eliminating the influence of obscure money, we can return to the days of reasonable political debate. These days are not as far away as they seem. We remember them fondly and long for a return to this type 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 chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. Novak is the former chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party. They are currently partners of Rooney Isenhour Novak Group

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