Column: Don’t pump more money into politics

Joe Schwarz

It is becoming increasingly clear that the influence of dark money on our politics is undermining the trust Americans have in our government and hindering our ability to create public policy that puts the needs of the people first. You don’t need to take my word for it, you just need to ask voters what they think. But elected leaders here in Michigan are recklessly looking to open the floodgates even further.

The Michigan Senate is considering Senate Bill 335, which would allow unrestricted independent political spending by outside groups in Michigan’s elections. The bill, introduced by Sen. Dave Robertson, R- Grand Blanc, would do away with state campaign contribution limits and allow Super PACs to get involved in state referenda and ballot initiatives by expanding existing campaign finance loopholes.

To say that this is bad policy would be an understatement. We are at a moment when Americans’ trust in government is incredibly low, and efforts like these only erode that trust further. I am particularly disappointed to see leaders from my own party looking to further weaken basic expectations of transparency and accountability. How can Michigan citizens believe that their elected representatives are looking out for their best interests, if they are receiving undocumented and unlimited financial contributions from anonymous individuals and corporations?

Senate Bill 335 furthers the reach and power of moneyed interests at the expense of Michigan voters. We are already operating in a political system where those who do not have enough money to turn the heads of political fundraisers are too often put at the bottom of the priority list, irrespective of the strength of their argument or the importance of their cause. Along with shutting the average Michigander out of the process, this system shifts the incentives for our elected leaders away from solving the problems of their constituents and toward raising money to help their “team” win on Election Day.

Unsurprisingly, this fundraising-first mentality discourages many of the best and brightest policy minds from running for office, and pushes many who do run and are elected to look for the door. Don’t you think you’d reconsider your job if instead of solving problems and helping your constituents as expected, you were asked to spend as many as 12 to 16 hours a week cold calling big dollar donors for campaign contributions? Moreover, it is an open secret that the best committee assignments go to the best fundraisers, not the most qualified policy experts.

When I went to Congress, I was flabbergasted that I was expected to spend so much of my time in Washington on the phone fundraising. I did not travel all the way to our nation’s capital — the place where, you know, legislators legislate — to make fundraising calls. My refusal to go along to get along did not endear me to the party fundraisers and, consequently, lost party support and a primary election. But I have no regrets: It was a stand worth taking then, and a stand that I hope my friends in the Michigan Senate see still worth taking .

In addition to breaking down the intended role of our elected legislators, the methods in which we finance our elections also provide clear fuel for cronyism, as special interests compete for access and influence that produces valuable government contracts, tax breaks and regulatory loopholes.

Here in Michigan, the proposal from Sen. Robertson would only make matters worse. Given the damaging role money is already playing in politics, I urge the Michigan Senate to reject Senate Bill 335 and similar policies that open the door to corruption and undermine the trust of voters.

Michigan voters deserve to know that the leaders we elect are not lining their pockets at our expense. We must be able to trust that our leaders are spending their time solving our state’s problems, not hustling to raise as much money as possible from corporate interests and big dollar donors.

In short, Michiganders deserve to know that our elected leaders are spending their time actually leading.

Dr. John (Joe) Schwarz is a former Republican congressman from Battle Creek. He is a lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and a member of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters Board of Directors.