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Analysis

How Congress Can Better Represent the People

Elected officials across the country affirm that public campaign financing — one of the reforms proposed in the For the People Act — can empower small donors.

The Senate is currently consid­er­ing the For the People Act, a historic demo­cracy reform bill passed by the House this month. In addi­tion to sweep­ing reforms to improve voting, redis­trict­ing, finan­cial trans­par­ency, and ethics laws, the bill would estab­lish a volun­tary small donor match public finan­cing system for candid­ates running for federal office.

Public finan­cing for congres­sional campaigns is a trans­form­at­ive reform. By match­ing and multiply­ing small dona­tions from every­day Amer­ic­ans, it would allow candid­ates to stop chas­ing big checks and special interest money, and to focus instead on grass­roots support­ers. But even though it’s a new idea for congres­sional elec­tions, public finan­cing already has an estab­lished track record. The For the People Act would update and improve an exist­ing system used by virtu­ally every major pres­id­en­tial candid­ate for decades. Public finan­cing systems have also flour­ished in state and local elec­tions.

A new Bren­nan Center report, Faces of Small Donor Public Finan­cing 2021, illus­trates the power of public finan­cing by featur­ing success stor­ies from across the nation. We inter­viewed elec­ted offi­cials who ran with public funds: Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans, long­time incum­bents and new chal­lengers, repres­ent­at­ives of small rural districts and those serving urban communit­ies with more than one million constitu­ents. The insights of several inter­viewees were informed by their exper­i­ences running for Congress.

Elec­ted offi­cials offered compel­ling testi­mony about the ways that public finan­cing allowed them to fundraise through door-knock­ing, house parties, and other forms of constitu­ent contact, rather than call time to wealthy donors. We heard about how public finan­cing brings people into polit­ics, encour­aging first-time donors, many of whom go on to volun­teer. And many lawmakers spoke about how public finan­cing makes govern­ment more respons­ive to the people and enables policies that better serve the public.

Among our inter­viewees, women and people of color spoke power­fully about the value of public finan­cing given the chal­lenges that tradi­tional fundrais­ing mech­an­isms posed for them. For example, New York State Attor­ney General Leti­tia James, who previ­ously held offices for over a decade in New York City, told us that the city’s public finan­cing program made it possible for her to run without connec­tions to wealth, rely­ing on support from people who have histor­ic­ally been left out of polit­ics.

This testi­mony is consist­ent with research show­ing that women and people of color running for Congress would partic­u­larly bene­fit from a multiple public match on small contri­bu­tions. To be sure, no single reform can address all the inequit­ies in the campaign finance system, but empower­ing small donors is one of the most power­ful options avail­able. As Rep. Lauren Under­wood (D-IL) explained during the House delib­er­a­tion on the For the People Act, our research shows that public finan­cing can “increase the racial and gender diversity of our elec­ted offi­cials.”

For all the bene­fits to demo­cracy of broad parti­cip­a­tion, small donors are in desper­ate need of a boost. The 2020 elec­tion cycle was by far the most expens­ive in Amer­ican history, with $14.4 billion spent between the pres­id­en­tial and congres­sional races. Though small donors contrib­uted record amounts — more than $4 billion combined — big donors were still respons­ible for the major­ity of campaign funds. Small-money donors were outspent by a much smal­ler number of megadonors — “mega” indic­at­ing contri­bu­tions over $10,000 — who collect­ively gave $5 billion.

Public finan­cing would amplify the voices of the millions of small-dollar contrib­ut­ors, funda­ment­ally shift­ing the balance so that small donors become the most import­ant source of campaign funds. It is designed to encour­age broader engage­ment in the polit­ical process so that elec­ted offi­cials are hear­ing from their many constitu­ents, not just a hand­ful of ideo­lo­gic­ally extreme megadonors.

The new report’s bipar­tisan chorus of firsthand testi­mony shows how an emphasis on grass­roots supports improves elec­tions and policy making. And it adds to a well-estab­lished record of success. In 2016, we published a collec­tion of offi­cials’ testi­mon­ies illus­trat­ing the bene­fits for candid­ates and constitu­ents. Since then, several new programs have been enacted, demon­strat­ing the contin­ued popular­ity and success of the reform. Last year, New York State became the first to enact public finan­cing for state offices since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision brought a flood of unlim­ited money into polit­ics. Newly imple­men­ted programs, like in Mont­gomery County, Mary­land, and Seattle, join decades-old programs like those in Arizona and New York City, which have together financed thou­sands of candid­a­cies.

Public finan­cing is a key step toward making our polit­ical systems more inclus­ive and respons­ive to the public. As shown by the elec­ted offi­cials and juris­dic­tions high­lighted in the new Faces of Small Donor Public Finan­cing, the future of the reform is bright.