Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and our nation and economy were plunged into a crisis that has sickened more than 200,000 of us here in Arizona, killed more than 5,000, and caused hundreds of thousands to lose their livelihoods, Arizonans knew that our political system was broken. From the corrosive influence of big money in politics to the corruption that occurs in Congress as corporate interests and lobbyists shape our laws, this system simply isn’t working for the citizens it is intended to represent.
But that failure has been revealed even more starkly by the infuriating events of the past six months. In Washington, our elected representatives have abandoned their duty to help the people they were elected to serve. Instead, they have bickered over pandemic relief packages that put corporate interests first and working families last, packages that gave hundreds of billions of dollars to huge corporations and too little to workers and small businesses. Now, they’ve allowed the expanded unemployment benefits that had been a lifeline to the millions forced out of work to expire, while doing nothing to help our schools open safely so our children can learn in person without risking their health.
At the same time, we’ve watched as our own Congressman, Rep. David Schweikert, was found guilty of 11 ethics violations in a massive scandal. The investigation found he improperly used his taxpayer funded staff for personal tasks such as babysitting for his child, and paying for his expensive meals and first class flight upgrades; he lied to federal regulators about loans, donations, and expenses on his campaign finance reports; and he even lied to Congress about his own actions.1 For years, Schweikert abused Congressional resources and staff – both of which we paid for as taxpayers and were intended to work towards making Arizonans’ lives better – by directing them instead to his own personal benefit.2
With leadership like this, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the work of the American people has been neglected. It’s never been more clear that it’s time for a change.
We face enormous challenges. From making health care and prescription drugs more affordable, to fully funding our schools, investing in our infrastructure to power an economic recovery, strengthening Social Security and Medicare, and addressing the climate crisis, there are so many urgent priorities demanding immediate, decisive action.
But we’re not going to make any progress by relying on the same, tired politicians and broken system that has been failing us for years. We can do better.
Positive change starts by voting out corrupt politicians and cleaning up Washington.
We must reform our campaign finance system and get big money out of our elections – restoring power to the voters. That must include banning candidates from receiving political contributions from corporate PACs—so our leaders are responsive to the people who elect them, not the corporations who fund them. We need to pass a Constitutional Amendment overturning the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which opened the doors for unlimited sums of money—often from undisclosed donors—to flood our elections and drown out the voices of ordinary Americans. We can then ban super PACs outright and pass new laws shedding light on dark money groups so wealthy donors can no longer hide behind secret donations. We also must address the growing problem of foreign efforts to influence our elections by imposing stronger restrictions on who can make contributions and more expansive reporting requirements for those who do. Lastly, to ensure such changes actually get results, we need to strengthen the FEC so these reforms can be enforced—and politicians who break them are held accountable.
But it’s not just our elections themselves that are broken—so is Congress. Corporations and special interests continue to wield undue influence, and lawmakers and their staffers pass seamlessly between taxpayer-funded jobs and positions as lobbyists. It’s time to institute a lifetime ban on lobbying by former members of Congress, and pass stricter regulations cracking down on those moving from Capitol Hill to K Street, while also eliminating eliminate “shadow lobbying” in which individuals act as corporate lobbyists in all but name to influence legislation while shielding their actions from the public.
And while we ensure our elected officials aren’t profiting from their positions once leaving office, we also need to ensure they aren’t doing so while in office, by barring members of Congress from trading individual stocks, ending automatic pay increases, and rolling back the perks and rewards that they’ve found a way to hoard for themselves. We’ll ban lawmakers from flying first class on the taxpayers’ dime, require them to donate rewards points earned from taxpayer funds to charity, and beef up enforcement of Congressional wrongdoing to ensure that politicians can’t get away with breaking the rules.
We can fix our politics, and our political system, once and for all, by electing public servants who are there to serve their constituents, not themselves. We can get Big Money out of politics, crack down on lobbying, and implement stronger ethics laws for our elected officials—but only if we elect officials who actually want to do the work and hold themselves accountable.
I do. And I will.
Dr. Hiral Tipirneni
Reducing the Influence of Big Money on our Elections
Ensuring our elected officials are beholden to voters and working families, not rich special interests and large corporations.
Our campaign finance system is broken. It is that simple. Unlimited contributions from the rich and powerful, dark money groups whose donors remain unknown, and an onslaught of special interest money have corrupted our elections and drowned out the voices of everyday Americans in our democracy. We need real reform, so that our elections—and our elected officials—actually represent the will of the people.
- Ban politicians from taking campaign contributions from corporate PACs. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision may have opened the floodgates for unlimited super PAC spending on our federal elections, but corporations were already exerting undue influence on campaigns, with corporate political action committees (PACs) making hundreds of millions in contributions each election cycle in recent years.3 I’ve promised that I’ll never take a dime from corporate PACs, and every elected official should do the same.But we simply cannot depend on individual candidates and officeholders regulating themselves. Campaigns, and elections, are only becoming more expensive, with each cycle setting new records for money raised and spent. And that flood of corporate special interest money has paid off for the biggest companies, as they get massive handouts such as the 2017 tax bill which allowed dozens of them to get away with paying no federal taxes, while we pay the price.4 It is time to pass legislation banning all corporate PAC contributions to candidates, so that individuals, not corporations, have a stronger voice.
- Overturn the Citizens United decision and ban Super PACs. The Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court ruling must be overturned—period. The 2010 decision that created Super PACs that can take unlimited money from rich individuals or corporations and spend it on attack ads has been nothing short of disastrous, not just for our campaign finance system, but for our democracy. By opening the door for super PACs to spend unlimited sums of money in our elections, the voices of special interests, corporations, and the rich and powerful have grown louder, at the expense of ordinary Americans. Already, super PACs have raised more than $1 billion in the 2020 election cycle, and have spent close to half a billion.5Most Americans agree—there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and corporations can spend on elections.6 Congress must act and pass a Constitutional Amendment overturning Citizens United so we can ban super PACs altogether and implement such limits on campaign spending and fundraising.
- Eliminate dark money from our political system. The Citizens United decision also has caused an influx of dark money, or undisclosed, contributions; since 2010, approximately $1 billion has been spent on elections by these groups—generally organized under section 501(c)(4)s of the tax code which have no requirements to report their donors yet are permitted to spend huge sums on their preferred candidates and causes.7The DISCLOSE Act would require these dark money organizations to disclose the names of anyone who contributes more than $10,000 if the group seeks to use the money to influence an election.8 It is past time that this legislation becomes law.
Furthermore, just as non-profits—along with individuals and PACs—should be required to publicly disclose their efforts to influence our elections, we must mandate that public corporations publicize all political spending as well. While the DISCLOSE Act would require dark money groups to report large contributions they receive, including those from corporations, we also should pass legislation directing the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to require public companies to disclose to shareholders all such spending in order to increase transparency. This is all the more important today, as groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce seek to do just the opposite, blocking corporations from implementing greater disclosure requirements.9
- Require political spending on digital mediums to be publicly disclosed in an online database, similar to TV ads. While overall political spending on digital ads still lags far behind such spending on television, campaigns are increasingly devoting their resources to online mediums, which are likely to become more and more important in the coming years.10 Yet while television ads have strict disclosure requirements to inform voters where campaign advertising is being placed, such regulations remain woefully inadequate in the digital sphere and are left up to the whims of individual platforms. Congress must pass legislation to require political digital advertising buys to be publicly disclosed in an easily accessible database, just as the FCC requires for political advertising on television.
- Crack down on illegal foreign money in our political system by closing loopholes that let foreign interests influence American politicians. While foreign organizations, corporations, and citizens are legally prohibited from making financial contributions to campaigns in the United States, a host of loopholes still allow foreign money to enter our political system and influence our politics. In recent years, we’ve seen foreign interests use anonymous LLCs or launder money through corporate entities to illegally funnel money to political interests.11Cracking down on dark money organizations and expanding disclosure requirements to digital mediums will help increase transparency, but foreign interests still can influence elections through investments in American companies.12 Congress can close this loophole by passing legislation prohibiting contributions from domestic groups, such as corporations, that are substantially owned by foreign individuals or entities—particularly foreign governments—while requiring the disclosure of such ownership stakes if contribution to political causes.
- Ensure the Federal Election Commission can properly serve as an effective watchdog to police wrongdoing. The FEC’s job is to enforce election law—but for much of the last year, due to partisan political infighting, the body has lacked a quorum, and thus the ability to do so. As a result, there have been hundreds of pending cases regarding alleged campaign finance violations that have gone unaddressed, including dozens of cases alleging foreign interference in our elections.13 This is appalling, and all the more so because the situation has been created deliberately for political ends, as D.C. politicians have sought to weaken the commission’s enforcement powers to the point of rendering it completely ineffectual.Adding a non-partisan member to the six-member commission will prevent politicians from both parties from being able to deny it a quorum for political gain. This is a simple fix that should be supported on a bipartisan basis. Furthermore, we must move to expand the FEC’s enforcement ability by allowing it to unilaterally conduct audits of the campaign finance matters it is charged with policing.
Slow the Revolving Door Between the Policy Process and Lobbying Industry
Restricting the D.C. revolving door that gives lobbyists, corporations, and special interests undue influence over our policy-making process—and over our policymakers.
What goes on in D.C.—from the crafting of new legislation to debates over much-needed reforms to the passage of legislation—should be driven by the needs of the voters who elect their representatives. But the truth is, lobbyists, corporations, and well-funded special interests are too often controlling the legislative process—leaving everyday Americans behind. It’s time to fix those broken priorities by reforming the influence-peddling system our lawmakers have created.
- Institute a lifetime ban on lobbying for all members of Congress. Those seeking elected office should be motivated by the determination to serve their constituents and make a difference in people’s lives. But all too often, a seat in Congress is just a stepping-stone for a lucrative lobbying job in D.C. A recent study found that, astoundingly, fully half of recently retired federal lawmakers who went on to find new jobs outside of government were working as lobbyists.14 Too many of those lawmakers are voting with one eye toward their future corporate payday, rather than what helps their districts. That has to stop.
Currently, members of Congress are restricted from lobbying for only one year after leaving office. That’s not nearly enough. We must institute a lifetime ban restricting members of Congress from lobbying – ever. Former lawmakers should not profit from their former positions of power in government.
- Prohibit D.C. staffers from jumping between taxpayer-funded jobs and lobbying positions. The revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street continues to spin far too freely, with staffers both in the executive branch and in Congress jumping between taxpayer-funded positions and jobs as lobbyists, allowing special interests and large corporations even more power and influence than they already had. Currently, covered Congressional and executive branch staffers have just a one-year “cooling off” period before they can seek employment lobbying their former bosses in government; that period is far too short, and must be extended to four years.Similarly, we need to pass restrictions prohibiting lobbyists from serving in executive branch positions for four years, instead of leaving this up to informal policies maintained by each administration. While dozens of former Trump administration officials have since cashed in as lobbyists on K Street,15 the problem goes both ways—Trump has named more ex-lobbyists to Cabinet-level positions in his first term in office than either of his predecessors did in eight years.16
This revolving door gives corporations undue influence over the policies being created to protect Arizonans and regulate companies. It’s time to slow it.
- Ban shadow lobbyists. Restricting who can and cannot be a lobbyist doesn’t do much good if those same individuals—former lawmakers and D.C. staffers in particular—can simply exploit disclosure loopholes and avoid registering as lobbyists in the first place, influencing our policy-making processes all the same. Indeed, some reforms intended to slow the revolving door between lawmaker and lobbyist may have pushed even more pseudo-lobbyists to skirt the rules and take advantage of loopholes to keep their activities secret.17To ensure this doesn’t happen, we must tighten registration and disclosure requirements to ban so-called “shadow lobbyists,” so that all individuals serving as de facto lobbyists are required to register as one and report their activities.
End Perks and Privileges for Members of Congress
Ending special privileges for members of Congress and cracking down on breaches of ethics rules.
It’s simple – our elected officials should be going to Congress to work for us, not to take advantage of their position with perks and privileges. If we can’t have faith in our elected representatives to go to Washington and represent the interests of their constituents, we can’t have faith in the votes they cast, nor the laws they pass. When it comes to creating a fair, just society for all, Congress should come first—including ensuring that laws are in place to hold them accountable.
- Prevent members of Congress from profiting from their positions. Our elected representatives in D.C. should be there to serve the people, not themselves. Nearly half of members of Congress are millionaires; and nearly 50 have an estimated net worth of more than $10 million, which would put them roughly in the top 1% of the country in personal wealth.18While members of Congress are barred from trading individual stocks based on nonpublic information—such as from classified briefings—the fact that they remain able to make such trades, given their positions, raises the specter of insider trading and makes “disaster profiteering” and corruption a very real threat.19Even the appearance of corrupt profiteering—of lawmakers putting themselves, not their constituents, first—is antithetical to a well-functioning democracy, eroding the public’s trust that our elected officials are there for us, not for themselves. Just recently, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, an independent watchdog group found that dozens of members of Congress made hundreds of individual stock transactions, some of them lucrative trades from which they profited handsomely.20 This shouldn’t be allowed to happen.
While stricter reporting requirements around stock trades for members of Congress enacted in recent years were a step in the right direction, we need to do more. Congress must pass legislation banning the buying and selling of individual stocks by members in order to prevent them from profiting from their positions.21
- End the automatic annual pay increase for Members of Congress. In 1989, Congress passed legislation that gave an automatic annual pay adjustment to lawmakers in perpetuity22—meaning our elected officials are eligible for a pay increase without having to cast a vote to do so. Since 2009, that pay increase has been annually nullified by inserting provisions into appropriations bills or other funding legislation to reject it.23 That includes pay increases through 2020, with the next scheduled increase slated to occur in 2021 when pay would be hiked by up to $4,400 if Congress does not act to reject that raise.24This backwards policy was created to allow lawmakers to put more taxpayer dollars into their own pockets without having to take a vote to do so. It’s time to end that system. We need to pass legislation to repeal this automatic pay increase so that if a member of Congress wants a raise, it will require the courage to cast a vote to do so rather than taking no action.
- Ban members from flying first class using taxpayer dollars. With a trillion-dollar annual deficit and out-of-control federal debt, our nation simply cannot afford needless spending—particularly on luxuries most Americans never even consider. Members of Congress should not be permitted to use taxpayer dollars to fly first class, and should be required to fly coach like the rest of us when travelling on official business.
- Require members to donate any perks or rewards earned from taxpayer dollars to charity. We need lawmakers who run for office in order to serve their constituents—not because they want perks and special treatment on taxpayers’ dime. The fact is, members of Congress already have it easy—with six-figure salaries, generous health care plans, and pensions that most Americans will never see.Currently, members are permitted to keep the airline or other reward points earned on taxpayer funded travel, even though it’s our money they’re spending. That lets them take free flights or use first class flight upgrades when travelling on vacation.
We should put those reward points to good use. It’s time to require any rewards points members accrue from taxpayer funded travel be donated to charity so they can instead support our veterans or children in need. At a time when millions of Americans are out of work and countless families are struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table, it’s the least Congress can do.
- Expand the enforcement power of the Office of Congressional Ethics. Laws and regulations intended to ensure the ethical actions of our elected officials do little good if there’s no assurance they will be enforced. Currently, the House’s Office of Congressional Ethics, which is charged with policing the actions of members of Congress, can initiate investigations into members, but it lacks the authority to issue subpoenas or even to punish members, and a court recently ruled that a law prohibiting obstruction of Congress doesn’t even apply to that office.25Even worse, the very independence of the Office has been called into question, with politicians recently pushing to bring the Office under the oversight of elected officials themselves—a move that could damage its ability to hold lawmakers accountable.26 Congress needs to pass legislation expanding the enforcement power of the Office and, at the same time, codifying its independence from the very politicians it is charged with policing.
1 “In deal, Rep. David Schweikert admits 11 ethics violations, to pay $50,000 fine.” Arizona Republic, 7/30/20
2 “Report in the Matter of Allegations Relating to Rep. David Schweikert.” Investigative Subcommittee, House of Representatives Committee on Ethics, 6/30/12
3 “Business-Labor-Ideology Split in PAC & Individual Donations to Candidates, Parties, Super PACs and Outside Spending Groups.” Center for Responsive Politics
4 “These 91 companies paid no federal taxes in 2018.”CNBC, 12/16/19
5 “Super PACs.” Center for Responsive Politics
6 “Most Americans want to limit campaign spending, say big donors have greater political influence.” Pew Research Center, 5/8/2018
7 “Dark Money Basics.” Center for Responsive Politics
8 “House Passes Democrats’ Centerpiece Anti-Corruption and Voting Rights Bill.” The New York Times, 3/8/2019
9 “SEC rules could thwart political spending disclosure efforts.” Roll Call, 4/7/2020
10 “Digital Hype Aside, Report Says Political Campaigns Are Mostly Analog Affairs.” The New York Times, 3/21/2019
12 “Getting Foreign Funds Out of America’s Elections.” Brennan Center for Justice, 4/6/2018
13 “FEC losing quorum again after Caroline Hunter resigns.” Politico, 6/26/2020
14 “Revolving Congress: The Revolving Door Class of 2019 Flocks to K Street.” Public Citizen, 5/30/2019
15 “Dozens of Trump veterans cash out on K St. despite ‘drain the swamp’ vow.” Politico, 7/8/2020
17 “The lobbying reform that enriched Congress.” Politico, 7/3/2016
19 “An Invitation to Corruption.” The Atlantic, 3/20/2020
20 “Lawmakers made hundreds of stock transactions during pandemic, watchdog finds.” Politico, 4/29/2020
21 “These Senate Democrats want to ban stock trading by members of Congress.” Roll Call, 5/13/2019
22 H.R. 3660, Ethics Reform Act, 101st Congress
23 “Salaries of Members of Congress: Recent Actions and Historical Tables.” Congressional Research Service, 8/18/20
24 “Salaries of Members of Congress: Recent Actions and Historical Tables.” Congressional Research Service, 8/18/20
25 “Court: Thwarting congressional ethics office not a crime.” Politico, 6/30/2020