OP-ED: Want Congress to be more effective during the next crisis? Support campaign finance reform

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) who was bankrolled by 21-year-old

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) who was bankrolled by 21-year-old "super citizen" John Ramsey undermined the pandemic response legislation called the CARES Act.

The scene was bizarre in the U.S. House of Representatives last Friday afternoon, where members had to use the upper galleries to observe social distancing guidelines while they approved a massive aid package for American workers and businesses.  Citizens are justifiably wondering how we got to this point.  

Part of the answer lies in the combination of a campaign finance system that privileges wealth, a rich college student in Texas, and a legislator who is “a third rate Grandstander” according to President Trump.

Congresswomen and Congressmen were forced to return to Washington to pass the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act) because of one man:  Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY). He insisted on having a roll-call vote on the package, forcing members to return to Washington to overrule his motion and pass the bill by a voice vote.

Massie gets elected these days by being an incumbent Republican in a safe Republican seat, although he might lose the Republican primary, since Trump has called for his expulsion from the Republican Party.

But in his first campaign, Massie “was primarily bankrolled by John Ramsey, a 21-year-old college student with a hefty inheritance” (according to The Almanac of American Politics 2014).  Massey won with 45% of the vote, beating two other strong candidates with experience winning Republican primaries.

Ramsey, then a student at Stephan F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas,  gave more than $500,000 to “Liberty for All,” a group that was supported the Massie Campaign.  It ran TV ads and funded a get-out-the-vote operation. This was only possible because the Supreme Court in its 2010 Citizens United decision removed limits on individual spending on campaigns, as long as the spending was not under direct control of a candidate or their campaign.

Why would a Texas college student care this much about a congressional race occurring over 900 miles away?  In this case Ramsey was a big fan of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), the libertarian firebrand who was a supporter of Massie.  

I am all for college students having political heroes, even if they are in a different state.  When I was in college in Indiana, I was able to meet one of mine: then-Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ).  On the day of the 2016 Republican Presidential Caucus in Kansas, one of my students was working the crowd on behalf of the Ted Cruz campaign.   Many of my current students at Wichita State are passionate about Sen. Bernie Sanders, and some have even given his campaign small donations.

These contributions are good for democracy, where the many rule themselves.  Small contributions expand the number of citizens who are actively involved in government and politics, without creating significant differences in power among citizens.  A voter who gives $5 to a candidate has a bigger impact than a non-contributing voter, but the difference is so small that it is irrelevant.

But when one individual can give over $500,000, then the system looks more like an oligarachy, the rule by the few over the many.  Inherited wealth should not be the effective qualification for being a ruler, whether the “super-citizen” is 21, 51, or 71 years old.  The odd scene in the U.S. Capitol Friday is another example of why campaign finance reform is urgently needed.