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Fixing The Real House of Cards

Over three seasons of House of Cards, Americans have followed the saga of the corrupt politician Frank Underwood. His deceptions and lies climbing the ladder of political power may have proved cathartic for viewers, but reinforced the worst cynicism about elections and government. But despite its tendency for melodrama and over-the-top scenes (and murder), House of Cards does reflect some of the real problems in our government: corruption, the influence of money, and abuse of power.

While Frank’s numerous scandals still remain under wraps, there are hundreds of real-life examples of politicians who abuse their power and work harder for their donors than everyday Americans. They aren’t throwing reporters in front of Metro cars, but they are providing tax relief, lenient legislation and enforcement, or even just use of the private Senate dining room for the occasional breakfast.

So, what are some reforms that could fix the real House of Cards?

One reform would be increasing transparency and efficiency for campaign finance filings. For example, the Senate could pass a provision to allow e-filing of Federal Election Commission reports, which would save taxpayers $500,000 annually and allow citizens and watchdog groups to search and analyze donations in a meaningful way. Instead, Senate candidates now print out their quarterly filing reports (which can run thousands of pages), submit them to the secretary of the Senate, who then scans those pages and forwards them as an unsearchable PDF to the FEC. Gavin (not to mention Cashew the Guinea Pig) would be horrified by this antiquated filing process.

Another reform involves President Barack Obama shining a light on dark money. In his 2015 State of the Union, the president said “a better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.” The use of dark money groups has increased since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions. Essentially political groups have been masquerading as “social welfare organizations” that don’t have to disclose their donors. Some of the largest dark money donors are federal contractors, and President Obama could require these contractors to disclose their political spending with an executive order. Recently, more than 50 organizations (including Every Voice) have signed on to a letter urging the president to sign the executive order. You can ask him to, too, by signing this petition.

While these reforms would work to shed light on how money flows into politics, more fundamental reforms would change the flow of money entirely — putting everyday Americans at the center politics rather than billionaires and special interests. The most comprehensive reform that would fundamentally change the way candidates raise money is small donor, public matching funds.

The Government By the People Act, authored by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) would establish such a fund, and candidates could raise money from everyday citizens instead of big donors. Small donations up to $150 would be matched from a public fund at a 6:1 rate. This gives elected leaders incentives to raise funds from their constituents, and address their concerns instead of the concerns of big donors.

In House of Cards, Frank knows the rules of the game, and the political system in the show rewards the most scheming and corrupt. In our real political system, those who pledge allegiance to the biggest donors tend to win re-election, and run for higher office. The American people already believe their lawmakers are more interested in helping their donors, but these reforms would clean up our current system of elections and put people back in charge of their government.

James King

James King is Every Voice's digital manager.

Every Voice and Every Voice Center have recently come under new leadership. We will be expanding and diversifying our efforts to promote a democracy that works for all of us and responds to the voices of everyday people. Watch this space for specifics later in 2019.