First elected to Congress in 1994 as part of Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina now proudly marches to his own beat.
To wit: The staunch Christian conservative frequently works with Democrats on the topic of campaign finance reform — something few other GOP lawmakers do.
Jones is currently the sole Republican co-sponsor of legislation introduced by Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., that seeks to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, handed down six years ago today. The decision gave corporations, including labor unions and “social welfare” nonprofit groups, the green light to spend without limit on political advertisements that call for the election or defeat of federal candidates.
Jones is also the lone Republican co-sponsor of legislation introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., that would establish a public financing system for elections that incentivizes donations from small-dollar givers.
The Center for Public Integrity recently spoke with Jones on Capitol Hill to discuss his support for these campaign finance reforms at a time when so many others in his party are moving in the opposite direction and embracing big-money political groups — even calling for the abolition of campaign contribution limits.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Center for Public Integrity: One of the leading presidential candidates right now is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. And one of his campaign finance bills calls for the elimination of campaign contribution limits. What do you think of that?
Walter Jones: I think Citizens United has already done enough in that area. I don’t think that is the way to go. You’ve got to have some type of reasonable limits to all this. Even PACs don’t feel like they have any influence anymore because the super PACs have taken it.
Center for Public Integrity: How would your day-to-day life be different if you weren’t as worried about raising money all the time?
Jones: My consultant would tell you that I’m the worst fundraiser up here. I despise it. I always try to get the majority of my money from the people I represent. I will always have a high number of people from my district or the state of North Carolina who have contributed.
Center for Public Integrity: Why do you focus on that?
Jones: I don’t want to be controlled. I feel like my obligation is to the people back home. Ever since I came out against the Iraq War in 2006 and got criticized badly back in the district about that, I decided that the best thing I can do for the people is to be independent — to vote my conscience.
Center for Public Integrity: What do you hope the next steps for campaign finance reform in Congress will be?
Jones: This place has not done anything since McCain-Feingold in the area of campaign finance reform. We’ve done nothing. Policy is controlled by special interests. Policy should be controlled by the people.
Center for Public Integrity: And how do special interests set the agenda?
Jones: The perception is that the system is controlled by special interests because members in both parties make phone calls and have fundraisers.
Center for Public Integrity: Does that perception ring true to you?
Jones: The policy too many times benefits the few instead of the many. That’s just what I see happening up here too often.
Center for Public Integrity: Can you give an example?
Jones: We had a bill on the floor [last spring] that would have allowed mobile home companies to raise their interest rates. Warren Buffett — he owns [one of the largest] mobile home companies in America. I didn’t vote for the bill.
(Editor’s note: The Center for Public Integrity, in collaboration with The Seattle Times, last year investigated Buffett’s mobile home empire and detailed the way it preys on the poor. Buffett has defended the company’s lending practices.)
Center for Public Integrity: When people talk about the need for campaign contribution limits, they usually talk about a concern of corruption. Can you say more about that?
Jones: In the Republican Party — and this is in the book Extortion — when you become a chairman, you do two things. You’re given a limit to raise money for the RNC [Republican National Committee]. And you are also told on certain votes, you have to vote with leadership. Where are the people? Did you come up here to be a chairman and forget the people you represent? Or do you want to represent your people? That’s where this place is conflicted with money.
Center for Public Integrity: If you could wave a magic wand, what would you do?
Jones: First, I would repeal Citizens United. And second, I would offer an alternative in the form of voluntarily public financing.
Center for Public Integrity: Why are those reforms important?
Jones: Everything has gotten out of hand up here. It’s all about raising money. To me, if you are going to give the government back to the people, then you’ve got to clean your own house up.
This story was co-published with the Huffington Post. A version also appeared on Al Jazeera America.
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