At a Nov. 8 talk at Harvard Law School, Representative John Sarbanes ’88 (D-MD) advocated for “grassroots democracy” funded by the people rather than by Political Action Committees and other large donors. Sarbanes is a co-sponsor of the Grassroots Democracy Act, intended to empower small donors and to free lawmakers from their dependency on big money. The event was sponsored by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

According to Sarbanes, the rise of large donors, often in the form of Political Action Committees, ‘PACs’, or SuperPACs, has created a dependency culture in Washington. Average voters, he said, cannot compete. In the last election, what he calls grassroots donors—individuals who give $100 or less—donated 10 percent of what big donors and PACs gave. Because of their reliance on large campaign contributors, Sarbanes argued, members of Congress begin to subconsciously lean toward policy that favors those donors.

“We’ve got to break that dependency,” said Sarbanes, who does not accept PAC contributions. “There’s a lot of people in Washington that are plugged into the money matrix, [and] they don’t even know they’re in it.”

The average member of Congress, Sarbanes said, spends 30 to 70 percent of his or her time fundraising. After a vote in the House, he said, his colleagues go to their party’s campaign committee office, and begin cold-calling large donors from an isolated cubicle. They go back to the Capitol Building for the next vote, then return to the campaign office to continue calling. Members of Congress do this every day, all throughout a legislative session, Sarbanes said.

“It raises the question, are we professional policymakers or professional fundraisers?” Sarbanes asked.

Consequently, Sarbanes said, some things fall by the wayside. Members are less able to concentrate—Sarbanes estimates he and his colleagues operate at 25 percent capacity. In addition, he said, devoting so much time to calling donors means lawmakers must sacrifice relationships with their colleagues, relationships that might help to bridge the partisan divide in Washington. And voters lose out too, Sarbanes said, as members spend less time learning about the topics of legislation and making thoughtful policy.

Sarbanes and 31 co-sponsors recently introduced The Grassroots Democracy Act (H.R. 6426). The act has several features intended to encourage small donors, including a $50 tax credit for equivalent donations to congressional candidates. A special fund would match donations to true grassroots candidates—defined in the act as individuals who do not accept PAC money, have at least 2000 donors who gave $100 or less, and have raised at least $50,000 in grassroots donations—in a 5:1 or 10:1 ratio. In addition, a citizen-owned “People’s Fund” would provide special support to candidates in elections marked by significantly large outside spending.

According to Sarbanes, the Act will both help empower citizens as well as free up time for members of Congress. Lawmakers who choose to participate—the Act does not make grassroots fundraising mandatory—would no longer need to spend time personally recruiting large donors. Instead, they could conduct broader outreach efforts, as grassroots donors do not expect individual contact.

To prove that this kind of fundraising would be feasible, Sarbanes conducted an experiment during the last campaign season. He raised $750,000 from high-dollar donors, then locked away $500,000 of that, which he would not access until he got 1,000 donors each giving $100 or less. He promised not to touch the remaining $250,000 until he had received at least $50,000 from small donors. Although it got off to a slow start, his campaign gained momentum and he reached his goal of 1,000 donors last July.

Still, Sarbanes acknowledged that the act would require a taxpayer commitment, but he thinks the time is right. People are frustrated by the dominance of money in politics, he believes, and are ready for a change.

“Somebody has to own the system, somebody has to own the machinery of public policy,” he said. “We can continue to have a system where campaigns are underwritten by big money and special interests … or people can decide to lift the system up on their own shoulders.”