Policy Today magazine cover showing neighbors talking
October 19, 2005

PT talks to Raúl Grijalva, U.S. Congressman from Arizona and co-sponsor of the "Clean Money, Clean Elections" bill—H.R. 3099—now being considered in the House Government Reform Committee.

PT: Tell us a little bit about the "Clean Money, Clean Elections" bill that you are co-sponsoring with Congressman John Tierney (D-MA).

Grijalva: It's an attempt to level the playing field. In my experience in politics—and Tierney's is much more than mine—it appears that money, power and influence have come to dictate what kinds of policies are passed. I came here on a grassroots campaign with people's $25, $50 and $100 checks, and I when I got here, I saw that many of our problems come from the disproportionate influence of money on elected officials.

This bill attempts to change that by enfranchising more people, giving them more input and investment in the process. When I was first elected, my financial split was 75-25. That's to say that 75% of the money I collected was from small checks and contributions, and 25% from larger donations. Since I've been here, it's gone to about 60-40, and I'll admit that, but that's the process. It's a seductive process. It's a process that requires us to be more cognizant of where we're getting our money instead of what the real issues actually are. We must get away from this corrupt practice of making distorted decisions as opposed to creating the best public policy. This piece of legislation isn't god-sent, but it is a way to balance the sheet.

PT: People generally like legislation like McCain/Feingold, but why hasn't there been more public concern? Where is the social movement?

Grijalva: It's because of leadership. Congressional leaders, when they go back into their districts, need to be reelected. The consequence of that is that reelection becomes more important than striving to achieve something. This kind of perverts the system.

PT: Tell us exactly how the process itself is distorted by the amount of money in politics now.

Grijalva: The energy bill that's coming up—refineries, big oil, coal—it's going to pass, unfortunately. As Representative Ed Markey said, "It's the worst energy bill I've seen in seven weeks." These deals were cut long before, and we'll never know what happened during those meetings. Big money tends to tell representatives, "Take care of your financial source before you take care of the voters' issues."

PT: Why would an elected official work to raise so much money for a job that pays so much less than what they could probably make elsewhere? What's going on here?

Grijalva: Power and influence. To some extent, there's personal gratification as well. I can speak for myself on that note, because I receive a lot of personal gratification from doing this work, but there aren't a lot of people in that camp. People want to keep their power and influence; that's it.

PT: What's the best way to get back to the representative democratic plan envisioned by the Framers?

Grijalva: Public financing at some point. Requiring that a certain amount of your money comes from your own district. These two limitations are critical. Does your district want you? Are people in your district willing to give you $25, $50, $100? It would diminish dependence on the industries that are capable of putting great sums of money into campaigns. I think this requirement—that a certain amount of your funding come from your district—is critical.

PT: What's holding this up? Are legislators worried about doing the real legwork? Is everyone benefiting from this system?

Grijalva: You're fighting a monolith. It's a monolith of money, power and influence. We're kind of opening up Delay and others on the Republican side right now, but our party is just as guilty of that in the past and potentially right now. My point is that money drives political agendas, and intentions can only get you so far. When a person runs for Congress, he or she can be a great person, sincere, with strong roots in their own community, but the first question when they come to D.C. is, "How much money do you have in your account?" not "What are the ideas that you want to push?"

PT: What has to happen to change things?

Grijalva: It has to come from the people. Will this happen in the next year or two? No. But as these things continue to tear at the fabric of our democratic process, I think the American public is going to demand some serious changes to the system.

PT: So, things will have to get worse before they get better?

Grijalva: Yes, I think we will have to see a new level of public outrage for anything to happen.

PT: What can you do to wake people up so we don't have to wait for the system to completely deteriorate?

Grijalva: You turn money down. I don't take pharmaceutical money. I don't take tobacco money. You start there. You work your base. You insist that there are no strings attached to the support you get. It's a very difficult process, but you have to do it. I think it's a kind of "arrogant integrity" that's required right now, but that's what you have to do to push it.

PT: OK, but what about the influence some people have that others don't, which ultimately gets them elected? How do you confront that?

Grijalva: You have to expose it. The media doesn't want to pick it up, but you have to keep taking the issue to your district. We need to be assertive and take back the message so it doesn't get swept under the rug.

You have to allow it to bubble up. You have to work where you are, talk to the people you represent and let it ferment. We can't concentrate on checking to see if the papers are running the right editorials. We have the Internet, we have small independent organizations and little town newspapers that are craving to talk to people. We have to utilize that aspect of our media. We have to make the connection for people between money, policy decisions and power.

PT: Congressman, thank you for your time.

Raúl Grijalva represents Arizona's seventh Congressional district and serves on the Committee on Education and Workforce, the Committee on Resources and is the chair of the House Democratic Environmental Task Force. He received his undergraduate degree in sociology in 1988 from the University of Arizona.