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Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland joins us to explore the legislation that he’s spearheading to end the involvement of dark money in politics, allow public campaign financing, and demand major ethics and voting rights reforms, and why Republicans are threatening kill it in the Senate

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us once again.

The first bill to pass the U.S. Congress this year is known as H.R.1. It’s the first bill out of the Democratic controlled Congress in this session and it’s a sweeping piece of legislation that covered deep campaign finance reform that would end the world of dark money, creating absolute transparency and allowing for public financing of political campaigns. It’s sweeping in ethics reforms for all branches of government and major voting rights reforms like automatic voter registration.

The man who pulled this legislation together, and one who takes no PAC money himself, is Maryland 3rd District Congressman John Sarbanes, who joins us in studio. And welcome, Congressman. Good to have you with us.

JOHN SARBANES: Thanks, Marc. Great to be here.

MARC STEINER: So this is huge. I tried to read the entire bill, which I did. I sat down, it took three days.

JOHN SARBANES: Thank you for doing that. I appreciate it.

MARC STEINER: Talk a bit about the background to this. I mean, this is something–you’ve got the entire Congressional Caucus, all the Democrats, to back this bill. And people can be really nervous about everything from public financing to instant voter registration, lots of things get people upset in this bill. So talk a bit about how this came about.

JOHN SARBANES: The best way to think about this is to think of it as having been written by the American people. And when I say that, what I mean is everything in this bill, every single page of it, reflects something that the public has been demanding for years. I mean, most people, and you know this, the cynicism out there is deep. Most people look at Washington, they look at our politics today, they feel like their voice is not represented, they don’t count, it’s the insiders and the money crowd that sort of calls the shots in Washington. And that’s why people feel so frustrated and powerless. As you go around and you talk to people, what you see emerging is this appetite to see real change and real reform in three areas. And they sort of naturally, organically emerge as the areas of reform that we should focus on.

So the first is voting. It’s too hard to vote in this country, still. I mean, here we are, more than fifty years after John Lewis was beaten and bloodied on the Edmund Pettus Bridge because he was protesting for voting rights. And we’re still in a situation where a lot of people have to run an obstacle course to get to the ballot box every two years. That doesn’t make any sense. So people are saying, “Let me let me just register and vote in America without that being a huge lift. Let’s protect the franchise.” So there’s a whole set of reforms in this bill that are designed to do just that.

MARC STEINER: Let’s take that for a minute. So exactly how does that work? Because you have people saying this is going to open up voter fraud, you have Republicans on the other side of the aisle already saying this is like the North Carolina election, you’re going to allow these things to happen, you’re going to be able to harvest votes, this is going to open up a whole Pandora’s Box of problems for voting. So what does it actually do?

JOHN SARBANES: Well, first of all, you’ve got to understand, in the debate that we had on this bill for months leading up to it and then in the final stages, made this very clear; voter fraud is not the problem in America. When you look at the statistics on actual voter fraud, voters who are trying to get away with something at the ballot box, I mean, it’s minuscule. The issue is voter suppression and people being stopped from getting to the ballot box, or election fraud, which is different from voter fraud. What happened in North Carolina was election fraud. That was a political operative who found a way to take advantage of the system and take advantage of voters. That wasn’t voters doing that. That was this operative who went to trial, and now we’ve got a new election going on down there as a result.

So this idea that voter fraud is somehow prevalent across the country is completely absurd. And if you look at the places where, like California that has automatic voter registration, Maryland is putting that in place, places where you make it more convenient for people to register and vote, it doesn’t result in more voter fraud. It results in more voter participation and engagement. And when you get that, people feel better about their democracy.

MARC STEINER: How exactly would it do that?

JOHN SARBANES: So automatic voter registration is the perfect example. There are a lot of contacts the average citizen has with governmental or quasi-governmental agencies where you provide all the information that is needed to register to vote. So the idea is when you have that contact and you deliver that information, you will be automatically registered, put on the rolls. And that just makes it easier for people to step into the process. We have provisions in H.R.1, the For the People Act, which directly combat voter suppression efforts out there so we can hold people accountable when they’re trying to block the to the voting booth. So there’s a whole set of things; being able to register online, boosting the support for absentee ballot voting, overseas ballot voting, that kind of thing.

So anything that has to do with strengthening the opportunity to vote has been pulled together in the portion of this bill that has to do with voting. And the other piece that’s about respecting the voter, which is very critical, is fixing partisan gerrymandering. So this bill would require that every state in the country establish an independent, non-partisan redistricting commission, which is important. Because a lot of people-

MARC STEINER: Constitutionally, you can do that?

JOHN SARBANES: You can do that.

MARC STEINER: You can’t tell Maryland how to design the districts, but–

JOHN SARBANES: You can’t tell them how to do it. But under the Time, Place, and Manner provision of the U.S. Constitution, the federal government has the authority to say to the states, “You have to set up an independent commission, it has to meet certain criteria, and then you go use that commission to draw the line.” So that’s an important thing, because again, it’s about giving people confidence, that the system works fairly, it respects them. This is all about respect. It’s about respect and power. Respect the voter, give power to the average citizen out there so they feel like they have ownership of their own system. So anyway, the voting piece, very critical.

Second area of reform, when you go to Washington, behave yourself. It’s that simple. People expect that. Be accountable, follow ethics, don’t get tangled up in conflicts of interest. So we’ve got very strong provisions to hold people accountable in the executive branch, in the legislative branch, transparency measures like anyone who runs for president and vice president in this country should release their tax returns.

MARC STEINER: For ten years.

JOHN SARBANES: Yeah. Eighty percent of Americans think that that’s fair and it was always done before we got to this president. So apparently, there’s these ethics and norms that everyone used to abide by, but we’re discovering that maybe we have to put those into law now to make sure going forward that people behave themselves. So that’s another key.

MARC STEINER: So in the ethics part, while we have the time, I really do want to jump into the question of dark money here and dive into that deeply. But there’s parts of your bill, not your bill but the bill that came out that you helped design, that talks about the Supreme Court and ethics. Talk a bit about that, because that’s the part that’s not talked about very much. Why was it in there?

JOHN SARBANES: Well, because there’s been evidence over the last few years of some conflicts of interests operating there; family members of Supreme Court justices who are stepping into the political space potentially in ways that create conflict of interest, certainly the appearance of conflict. So there hasn’t really been codified before a set of ethics guidelines that governs the Supreme Court. And we thought it was important that if you’re having this expectation of people acting ethically and with accountability, that that apply to the Supreme Court as well. So there now will be a code of ethics that in statute will require the Supreme Court to abide by certain standards.

As far as the legislative branch goes, we put in provisions, for example, that say that members of Congress can’t serve on for profit boards because there’s plenty of examples of people getting in trouble because of that. Members of Congress can’t use their taxpayer allowances that they used to set up their office, they can’t use that to settle discrimination cases.

MARC STEINER: Or sexual harassment.

JOHN SARBANES: Exactly. So this all goes under the heading of behave yourself when you get to Washington, respect the people who sent you there. So that’s the ethics basket. And then the last piece, which is really where people get angry, is the influence that money has in the system. The PACs, the super PACs, the billionaires leaning on our politics every single day in order to get a return on that investment, which is to be able to call the shots on what happens in Washington and how the laws are made.

So a key piece of this legislation incorporates the DISCLOSE Act, which says that millionaires, super PACs, these 501(c) organizations that have been hiding the ball on where their money comes from, they have to come clean. They have to say where that money’s coming from, stand behind it. And that’s important for the voter. Because if you know who’s buying the commercial, it gives you a little bit of perspective on how to receive that information, instead of it just sounding like some innocuous named organization, Americans for Apple Pie. If you know that standing behind Americans for Apple Pie are the Koch brothers, for example, you might listen to that message a little bit differently, a little more carefully. So we want to make sure there’s transparency.

MARC STEINER: What I read in the bill was this transparency covers almost everything. I mean, it covers the PACs that don’t have to disclose who’s backing them, the ads on Facebook.

JOHN SARBANES: So that’s another provision, yeah. The Honest Ads Act is another piece of this. A lot of the advertising that happens on these digital platforms doesn’t come with the same kind of disclosure and disclaimers that you get, for example, if I run a commercial on broadcast television, I have to say that I approve that commercial at the end of it. But the same standards don’t apply in terms of digital platforms, so there’s no accountability there. So we require that also, we want to know who’s buying those ads, because we know that a lot of foreign interests were getting onto these platforms and sewing discord and so forth. So all that transparency, again, helps to equip the citizen out there to make a more informed decision when they go to the polls.

MARC STEINER: If I read it right, it also meant that super PACs can no longer hide who’s supporting them, who’s giving them the money, so which part of the one percent is actually trying to buy the election in their own way.

JOHN SARBANES: If you’re giving big dollar donations, one way or the other, that are coming in and affecting the political discourse, you’re going to have to raise your hand and say who you are. And that’s fair. I mean, the First Amendment is important, but the First Amendment only really means something if you know who’s standing behind the message. And that’s what we insist on.

And then, the last piece, the part that frankly I’m most excited about and have been working on for years, is the small donor matching system, which is a completely new way of funding campaigns. Because the fact of the matter is that to get to Washington now costs on average one point six million dollars for a congressional race. To raise that kind of money, you have to go to where the money is. Right now, where the money is is with the PACs and the high dollar donors and the lobbyists, so that’s where everybody goes to raise their money. Well, if that’s where you get your money, that’s where you’re going to get your marching orders. That’s just human nature. And it leaves the average person out there saying, “I don’t matter at all, my voice doesn’t count. It’s that crowd that’s running the show.”

By creating a whole new system that leverages small donations, bringing matching funds in behind them, you give power to everyday Americans. They start to call the shots instead of the lobbying crowd on K Street. Completely transforms the way candidates will relate to the voters and how, when they get to Washington, they’ll continue to represent those priorities instead of getting captured by the other priorities.

MARC STEINER: So the way I understand it, it means it’s up to 200 dollars a donor and it’s six dollars for every dollar that goes in, but it’s not being paid with our tax dollars. Is that right?

JOHN SARBANES: Correct, exactly. We came up with what we called the Freedom From Influence Fund, which is where the match comes from. To raise money to go into that fund, what we’re going to do is we’re going to put a small surcharge, two point seven five percent, it’s a little over two and a half percent, on settlements that the government enters into with industry law breakers, high end tax cheats. So for example, if some big Wall Street bank gets sued by the Justice Department because they’re committing fraud against American consumers and they have to settle that case for half a billion dollars, we’re going to take just a tiny little piece of that, a surcharge, and put it into this freedom from influence fund. And that will match the small donor.

So the elegance of this, Marc, is you’re basically going to the industries that are leaning on our democracy right now because they’ve got all this special interest influence, and you’re saying, “If you’re one of these interests that’s trying to sort of weigh in on our democracy and you’ve broken the law, we’re going to take a little piece of that settlement, we’re going to put it in this fund. So the people that are breaking our politics, we’re going to ask them to pay to fix our politics. And that empowerment for everyday Americans, that’s the game changer.

MARC STEINER: So finally here, because we have to wrap up here, there’s politics to this.

JOHN SARBANES: Of course there is. There’s politics to everything.

MARC STEINER: So you might have the Democratic Caucus around you, but Republicans are actually opposing this. McConnell has made it clear he’s not going to let this get through the Senate. So this either has to be broken up into component parts, and/or it becomes the campaign issue of what kind of government we want.

JOHN SARBANES: So we’re going to do both. We’re going to run alongside the package that we’ve passed with component parts being introduced and see if we can get some bipartisan support around those. That’ll help maintain momentum. But we’re also going to say to Mitch McConnell every single day, “What’s the problem, Mitch? Don’t you stand for democracy?” Does he really want to become the face of opposition to reforming American democracy out there? Does he want to stand with his arms folded at the gates saying to the American people, “We’re not going to let you in.” I don’t think that’s a good place for him to be. I mean, a few weeks ago, he was saying that H.R.1 was a Democratic power grab. And within minutes, people started saying, “This isn’t a Democratic power grab, this is a people power grab. This is for us.”

And that’s how it got wrote. We didn’t write it for Mitch McConnell and everybody else. We wrote it for the American people. This is going to reset the rules of the game in Washington so that everyday Americans can have confidence again that they’re the ones that call the shots. If McConnell wants to stand against that, I wish him the best. Because we’re going to make that clear over the next eighteen months that that’s not a good place to be, that the American people, not Democrats, the American people are on the side of this reform. They have a deep and abiding appetite to see this change, Marc. And until they get that change, they’re not going to be happy.

So we want to offer up a constructive solution to the public’s anger, because it can otherwise find its way to other kinds of solutions. And we think this is the gold standard. We don’t have to think in the abstract anymore about what does reform look like, we built it. We built it to last. It’s H.R.1, it’s the For the People Act. This week in the Senate, Tom Udall will be introducing a companion bill, so we’re going to be making this case in both chambers. This is the gold standard. Let’s go do this, let’s get this reform done for the American people.

MARC STEINER: Interesting. Congressman John Sarbanes, thanks so much for joining us. Good to have you here.

JOHN SARBANES: Great to be here.

MARC STEINER: Interesting, we’re going to follow this one. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for following us and being with us. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.