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How to seize back your democracy

By Ben Cohen and Larry Cohen
updated 11:22 AM EST, Tue February 11, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ben Cohen, Larry Cohen: 2014 elections will see huge campaign donations, spending
  • They say Citizens United ruling helped open gates to flood of outside spending to sway vote
  • They say citizens now think corporations, super PACs control democracy
  • Cohens: Public financing of campaigns would restore voice, trust of Americans

Editor's note: Ben Cohen is the co-founder of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream and the founder of the StampStampede.org campaign, whose goal is to help build the movement to amend the Constitution to get money out of politics. Larry Cohen is president of the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America. CWA, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the NAACP are conveners of the Democracy Initiative, with more than 40 organizations and 25 million members working for a 21st-century democracy.

(CNN) -- The 2014 midterm elections are quickly shaping up to be the most obscenely expensive ever. As more and more outside groups shell out an unlimited amount of campaign cash -- while accepting bottomless contributions from big business and anonymous wealthy donors -- stockpiling huge amounts of campaign cash has become a political arms race.

Even so, this is the year concerned Americans can begin to turn it all around and get big money out of politics. Together, "we the people" can stamp out big money in politics.

If we don't act now, we're in trouble. The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision was a key ruling in opening up the gates to a torrent of spending by super PACs. Outside groups spent a whopping $2 billion in the 2012 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission figures, compared with $298,549,659 in 2008.

Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Larry Cohen
Larry Cohen

According to the Center for Responsive Politics' analysis of super PACs and politically active nonprofits, by November of last year these groups had burned through $20.6 million, more than three times the $6.3 million they'd laid out by the same point in the last election.

"Dark money" organizations -- 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) nonprofits such as Americans for Prosperity or The League of Conservation Voters, which aren't required to disclose the names of their donors -- have nearly quintupled their spending of two years ago.

And right now, the nation is awaiting the Supreme Court's decision in another case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which is challenging caps on the total amount that a wealthy donor can directly give to all PACs, campaigns and parties combined -- what's known as "aggregate contribution limits." If the court strikes down contribution limits, one affluent donor would be able to give more than $3 million in direct contributions. Currently, individual donor contributions are capped at $123,200 -- more than double the median family income in America.

What's one impact of all this money?

Many Americans are becoming convinced that their votes don't count, that our political process is controlled by the biggest bankroll, and that money, not the public interest, sets policies and priorities in government. Big money gives a big voice to the wealthy and corporations, at the expense of the rest of us. It threatens the democratic voice that is the foundation of our country. Freshman representatives in Congress are asked to spend nearly half their time raising money, many providing special interest lobbyists and elites with unprecedented access. These special interests can afford to pay $5,000 a plate for politicians' fund-raising breakfasts, or for such things as ski trips, pheasant hunts and luxury golf tournaments.

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This access shapes the issues that members of Congress care about. It inevitably promotes a "pay to play" government that leaves other citizens out in the cold and makes the public increasingly cynical that elections matter.

What are the steps we must take to restore our political process to one determined by "we the people"?

Public financing of campaigns would restore the political voice of small contributors and the belief that the votes and voice of ordinary Americans count. Last week, Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Maryland, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, introduced "government by the people" legislation that will empower "we the people" as small donors to fight back against big money in politics.

With a "Freedom from Influence Fund," financed by closing corporate tax loopholes, the bill would give small donors a $25 refundable tax credit, and match contributions of $150 or less at a rate of 6 to 1. This effort is similar to a public finance measure introduced in New York state, and other jurisdictions also are looking at this public financing model. Already 16 states, 500 municipalities and over 140 members of Congress are on record in support.

While local and national advocates are driving key reforms, every citizen -- Democrats, independents and Republicans -- can help build the movement to get money out of politics by legally stamping messages like "Not to be Used for Buying Elections" on their paper currency. On average, a dollar bill stays in circulation for approximately two and a half years and is seen by 875 people. So as more stamped bills enter the marketplace, we can create a massive visual demonstration of support for reforms -- support that our elected representatives will no longer be able to ignore.

If we care about a truly representative government and political process, one that engages and encourages the electorate to participate, then we must take action to get big money out of politics.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ben Cohen and Larry Cohen.

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