Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) proved that candidates can win races without help from corporate political action committees. Now, he wants to enshrine that practice in federal law. To that end, he reintroduced the No PAC Act last month in hopes of curbing the sway of special interests over the political process.
The bill, which the Silicon Valley lawmaker co-sponsored with fellow Democratic Congressman Dean Phillips, would amend the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 by prohibiting members of Congress and those running for a House seat from accepting contributions from a political action committee. San Jose Inside sat down with the local congressman to find out more about the proposed legislation, his pledge to refuse corporate PAC donations and his thoughts on special interest money in local elections.
What message are you trying to send through the No PAC Act?
No member of Congress or US Senator could take political action committee money and that you should only be relying on money from individuals. I introduced this before with Rep. Beto O’Rourke and then he ran on it in Texas. Beto and I did this during the last Congress and then Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minnesota) and I are doing it this Congress.
What happened to the bill last time?
We got a few backers, but it’s a heavy lift because so many people take PAC money in Congress. More and more people now are realizing you don’t have to do it and you can still raise a lot of resources because of grassroots contributions.
What are your hopes for this proposed law?
That we get more co-sponsors. That it becomes more acceptable for members of Congress to take a pledge to get off PAC money. Getting special interest money out of politics is critical if you ever want to see Medicare for all, if you ever want to see laws to tackle gun violence like universal background checks, if you want to see legislation to tackle climate change. I’’s critical to advancing progressive goals.
Why haven’t you accepted PAC donations?
I’m one of about seven members of Congress who take no PAC money. I’m one of the very few who don’t take any lobbyist money. I was surprised that more members don’t take this pledge because Barack Obama ran on this in 2008. There’s no reason that individual members of Congress need to accept PAC money. I’ve never taken a dollar of that money my entire career. Even when I lost, I ran again and said I’m still not going to accept it. It cost me about a million dollars a year.
Now, in today’s world, with people having the ability to contribute online, we’ve seen Bernie Sanders and we’ve seen Elizabeth Warren show how you can really grow a grassroots base that can fund your campaign. I think the model of fundraising has changed. I recognize that I have an advantage in that Silicon Valley is an affluent area. So it’s easier to get individuals to contribute in an affluent area. That’s why I have proposed Democracy Dollars.
What are Democracy Dollars?
My bill is called Democracy Dollars and I worked with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) on it. Actually, Andrew Yang supported it at the presidential debate and it would basically give $50 to every citizen to contribute to politics. I introduced it about a year ago. That’s the long term solution to campaign finance reform: give every American citizen $50 to contribute to federal campaigns. If you do that you would dwarf the private spending and you would eliminate the need for anyone to be reliant on PACs.
Where would the money come from?
Federal money. It would cost about $6 billion a year. Think about that, that’s not insignificant to the federal budget to preserve our democracy.
Some residents in San Jose are proposing a “Fair Elections Initiative” that would bar certain developers and lobbyists from donating to city council races. What do you think of that approach?
I would support that. I don’t think developers should be contributing to city council campaigns if they have business before the city council. PAC money on a local level is not good. Cities should look at what Seattle did they had this Democracy Dollar idea where they gave each city resident money to contribute to a local election. I believe we need to get rid of these special interest funding at the federal level or at the local level and replace it with empowerment so that people aren’t revolted by special interest influence.
Answers have been edited for clarity and length. Want to nominate a subject for a Q&A? Email the author or leave a suggestion in the comments below.