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Fighting “Legalized Corruption” in Politics

by Charlotte Hill (MPP '17)

Watch Charlotte discuss her work with Represent.Us with Dean Henry E. Brady as a part of UCTV's “Millennial Voices” webcast.

When people learn I've taken a year-long sabbatical from graduate school to pursue anti-corruption reform, they frequently assume I’ve joined a presidential candidate’s campaign. It is an understandable assumption. Bernie, Trump, Hillary, Cruz—virtually every presidential candidate left in the running has lambasted America’s culture of legalized corruption, in which special interests buy political influence via outsized campaign contributions, lucrative job offers, thinly veiled threats of super PAC spending, and the like. It’s all perfectly legal—and all perfectly antithetical to government of, by, and for the people.

Despite the 2016 campaign rhetoric, however, one president cannot fix our political system. There are simply too many facets of legalized corruption, none of which can be unilaterally addressed by the chief executive: the unprecedented amount of money flowing through our system that cannot be tracked back to an original donor; the enormous influence lobbyists and their clients hold over members of Congress; our completely broken campaign finance system, in which ordinary Americans are completely excluded from the political process because they can’t afford to make campaign donations; and our dysfunctional Federal Election Commission, the body tasked with enforcing national ethics and campaign finance laws. (In fact, in a recent New York Times interview, FEC Chairwoman Ann Ravel called the commission “worse than dysfunctional.”)

Even if a president wanted to prioritize ending corruption, he or she would need the cooperation of Congress. And we all know how likely our federal legislators are to pass a bill that transforms the system they used to get elected in the first place.

Instead of latching onto a presidential race, I joined the team at Represent.Us, the nation’s largest grassroots anti-corruption campaign. Even more than its snazzy graphics and funny viral videos (when you have a free moment, google “honest political ads”), I was drawn to Represent.Us’ smart policy proposals and eminently feasible political strategy—a rare and formidable combination.

Represent.Us champions a piece of model legislation called the American Anti-Corruption Act. It tackles our broken political system from four directions: ending secret money, stopping undue lobbyist influence, giving every voter a voice in how elections are funded, and ramping up enforcement of ethics laws. The law was crafted with the input of some of the smartest people working on this issue: former FEC Chairman Trevor Potter; constitutional law professor Lawrence Lessig; and, my personal favorite, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

When Represent.Us members show widespread support for anti-corruption reform where they live, we help them get a customized version of the Anti-Corruption Act on the ballot in their city or state. By taking our fight local rather than focusing on Congress, we bypass politicians entirely, empowering voters to pass laws themselves and building momentum for national reform. In the process, we counter the well-documented growing influence of state lobbyists and special interests.

This fall, Represent.Us members in at least two states and multiple cities will put Anti-Corruption Acts before their fellow voters. There’s no guarantee we will win. Ballot campaigns are arduous and expensive, even without significant opposition—and in our case, plenty of powerful interests have a stake in maintaining the status quo.

But my hopes are high. Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of making government work for regular people, not just the welloff and well-connected. For the first time in recent memory, conservatives and progressives are joining across party and state lines to form a bona fide national movement against corruption. November 2016 could very well mark the beginning of a tidal wave of reform—and I want in on the action. 

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Charlotte Hill is a recipient of the Jacob K. Javits Political Leadership Scholarship at the Goldman School. She currently serves as the senior communications director of Represent.Us, the nation's largest grassroots anti-corruption campaign. 

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Policy Notes.