This week's Supreme Court ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC was a nuclear bomb detonated on the capital city of those fighting to get the money out of politics – or as I like to call it, the only thing close to a silver bullet in fixing our pathetically-inept political system. After ruling that corporations are people and free to spend unlimited amounts of cash buying elections, I suppose it's a logical extension that people are people and should be able to do the same. But this is about much more than the issue at hand. It's another powerful victory in a battle to overcome the chief obstacle to oligarchy rule in a democratic system – those pesky elections.
The ruling had nothing to do with the limits that an individual candidate could accept from one person. This was about a much lesser-known cap on total political spending that was implemented by Congress in an effort to inject some much-needed credibility into the political system in the wake of the Watergate scandal. It was a way to say, just because someone has a gazillion dollars doesn't mean they can buy Senators and Presidents.
Prior to the ruling, an individual could give no more than $48,600 to all of the candidates they supported and $74,600 to all parties and PACs, per election cycle – a total of $123,200. That was the max you could give in your name, each time out. Of course if you are a very wealthy individual, you might also be able to see to it that your wife and a few of your kids find it in their hearts to do the same. Nonetheless, there was an aggregate limit and you had to make an effort if you wanted to get around it.
A rich Alabama businessman named Shaun McCutcheon (along with the Republican National Committee) argued that these aggregate limits violated their First Amendment rights under the Constitution. Five justices agreed and the limits are no more. Justice Clarence Thomas was even moved to write separately in the majority to say that were it up to him, he'd scrap all limits on contributions. (Relax Clarence, I'm sure you'll get your chance.)
What's most scary about this decision is the doors it seems to open up going forward. In the majority opinion (pdf), Chief Justice Roberts established what could be a very important precedent, using an extremely narrow interpretation of the influence of contributions on corruption. Roberts sounded almost like Captain Renault in Casablanca, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here,” taking a view that influence won through even massive contributions is debatable, and absent of a direct quid pro quo bribe, largely irrelevant.
From here, it seems unavoidable that the oligarchs will make a similar argument in support of individual contributions. When they do, how could this court (or at least five of the justices) say they're wrong? After the recent District 13 Congressional races, I started hearing rumblings about the way the races had been “hi-jacked by PACs” and rules preventing the candidates from coordinating with the groups were actually hurting voters, as those running for office were almost powerless in directing the way big money was framing the race.
Soon, we'll be deciding whether it isn't just better to let them coordinate after all – you know, for the voters' sake. Once you get that far, how do limits matter at all? At a time when more than ever, we need to get the money out of politics and restore a functional citizen democracy, it's very clear that we're moving instead toward a system in which all of the limits are tossed out the window and the status quo becomes anyone can give any amount of money to any candidate or party and there's nothing you can do about it without violating their Constitutional rights.
Why is this happening? That appears simple. Fewer and fewer people are benefiting from the status quo. In any sort of fair and equitable election process, it would be quite difficult to get a majority of citizens to vote against their own self-interests to serve and promote a system that benefits so few. So as more and more wealth gets concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, those few have to find a way to exert more influence than a one-person/one-vote deal would otherwise afford them.
The fact that the concentration of wealth among the top tier has reached a historic high in recent years means that fewer people (including corporations) simply have to by more elections in order to maintain the status quo. It also means that the ROI is much juicier. A billion dollars per election cycle can yield a hefty return for the best connected, while the average Joe isn't likely to catch a disinterested glimpse, even if he coughs up a month's pay. Start sewing the sponsor patches on the tailor made suits of the 435 Congressmen in Washington along with the President and start sell naming rights for the White House and the Capitol building – at least we will know who paid for the mess they've given us.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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