As you may have heard, the Supreme Court yesterday ruled in McCutcheon v. FEC that wealthy individuals cannot be limited in the overall amount they can give to political candidates. The First Amendment, which last time I checked does not mention money at all, allegedly now bars any limitation on the total amount of moola that rich folks can shovel in the direction of elected officials.
The 5-to-4 decision split along political lines and overturned decades of settled law, as well as many state limits grounded in anti-corruption principles. The majority decision is rife with such broad (and utterly daffy) generalizations about the nature of speech and political life that it also makes clear that the Court is frighteningly likely, in the not-so-distant future, to strike down any kind of contribution limit.
The former aggregate contribution limit of merely $123,000 per federal election was such a drag on my own political giving, as I’m sure it was on yours. I totally had more money than that saved up to spend on every election cycle (I’ve been clipping coupons!), and I’m glad to see that all that green stuff I have laying around in piles can finally go to good use buying influence for my pet projects.
In truth, out of a country of 314 million, only 1,300 people maxed out the prior cap on political contributions in the last election cycle. What a crisis! I can see why the Supremes thought this decision was worth their time.
Of course, some of these large donors may be cursing the outcome, as their phones are already ringing off the hook, and now they won’t be able to escape pols’ persistent dial-a-thons until they’ve dished out $3.2 million, or 30 times the old limit. As Lawrence Lessig put it on Diane Rehm this morning, the decision narrowed the number of people who are at all politically relevant in the money race from the old high of a mere 120,000 people to an even smaller pool of 40,000, or about the number of people in the U.S. named Sheldon.
The Court’s majority opinion is an activist one in the classic sense, yet is oddly disingenuous about its impact on established law. The majority is also not above boot-strapping: yesterday’s decision relies on the secret flow of campaign funds created by Citizens United as a basis for taking down yet more limits, without acknowledging the situation was actually created by the Court.
And in a hypocritical break with oft-hyped principles of constitutional textualism, the Court ignored a key brief filed by Lessig that analyzed the Framer’s uses of the term “corruption,” instead delivering a decision out-of-step with the historical record. Indeed, the case is a harbinger of bad decisions to come because it signals that a key idea — that political money can create an “appearance of corruption” — has evaporated as a matter of law.
Even the dissenters appeared surprised that the Court’s official definition of political corruption now contains only outright bribery. (In fact, the erosion began when then-Solicitor General Elana Kagan threw a key case on appearance of corruption under the bus during the oral argument for Citizens United. Now the damage from abandoning a broader description for political corruption is plain.)
Still, cramped legal arguments aside, the level of cluelessness from the conservative majority about how Washington already more-or-less operates is breathtaking. What we all know in our hearts to be true is actually the case, and not just on House of Cards. To state the painfully obvious: I’ve been in a room in the Congress with a handful of big-money political donors, and seen with my own eyes how their influence is greater than that of 1000 mere voters, even when the money is merely in the background, and not on the table. These are the folks that Roberts thinks need protecting because they are despised — you know, like flag-burners and Nazis.
What he fails to acknowledge is that they are at the heart of the system, not its outskirts. The rich get different meetings, including sometimes in the Oval Office or with committee chairs, and with actual elected officials instead of staff flunkies. They get their phone calls returned, promptly. Meanwhile the rest of us, even those lucky Washingtonians who are officially designated advocates working on issues that a member of Congress or two is supposedly interested in, twiddle our thumbs, waiting around nervously for a return call like a shy schoolgirl from the 1950s.
As a 2012 brilliant TAL episode on the Washington shake-down pointed out, the open secret in Washington is that elected officials need donors more than donors (except, perhaps, the most craven ones) need them. The parties impose fundraising quotas on everyone, including specific levels of money to be raised by new members, committee chairs, and for leadership positions, and every lawmaker also must raise their own dough or look like a sitting duck. The post-Citizens United explosion in Super-PAC spending made this considerably worse — making every candidate more insecure because any one of them could face unknown amounts of last-minute spending by shadowy front groups.
Lifting the aggregate limits, as the Court just did in McCutcheon, may be even more damaging than the inevitable move to eliminate the remaining limits on direct contributions to candidates. Why? Because it substantially raises the potential value of very wealthy donors for larger groups of party electeds. The value of a donor, in the mind of every politician, is their ability to give early and often to the enterprise. Being able to turn-key a political gift to another pol through a joint fund-raising committee or other means is almost as good — and in some cases, might be even better — than collecting it for yourself, because it creates a new ally and obligation while supporting the party. Back-scratching, log-rolling, call it what you will — that’s the actual coin of the realm.
These factors also explain the inherent limits in the power of small donors under the current set of operating rules. And while the growth in smaller donors has been significant in Presidential elections, smaller gifts are harder to collect in less-publicized races. Even the recent efforts to organize smaller donations would have been unlikely to take root without many of the very reforms being struck down by the Court, reforms that, for a brief time, required political parties to look elsewhere besides to the rich and powerful for funds.
The major push for collecting political money emanates from and around Washington, not from individuals clamoring in the marketplace of ideas to be heard, as Roberts and his ilk conjure up in the opinion. When I was, briefly, a legislative director for an organization with a small PAC, I suddenly started getting voicemails from elected officials on my personal cell phone. “Hi, I’m Representative So-and-so,” they would say. “I would really love to talk with you about coming to my event next week.” After a decade of working around Washington advocating on important issues of public health, it was gratifying that actual members of Congress were now so keenly interested in my “political speech”!
I actually don’t fault politicians: it’s currently impossible to know who is really in Congress for the right reasons, because this is how we define their job. But the notion that this kind of routine exchange between two functionaries — sickening, undignified, and clearly self-interested in the narrowest sense — is about anybody’s First Amendment freedom is ludicrous. It’s a classic shake-down, often loathed by both sides, and legalized by an elaborate tap-dance that keeps everyone, barely, on the right side of what otherwise might look a lot like bribery.
Thankfully, in our own dear country (unlike in many places around the world) there is no shortage of political speech, either through money or the more traditional act of actually speaking. If anything, we talk our problems to death, until the solutions expire of boredom and inaction. Instead, the problem with the ineffectiveness of our politics has been, to mangle George Orwell, that some folks’ speech is more equal than others’.
Those who oppose change are often the ones who have the most to gain from stasis. So it makes sense that amassed wealth is inherently anti-reform, both because money represents a victory under the current rules of the game, and because the wealthy have the most — quite literally — to lose. When lawmakers’ livelihoods are roped inextricably to the continued success of the wealthy donors they must court to stay in office and keep their standing in Congress, there is little doubt that democracy has been replaced with something else, and that real change, no matter how justified, will be far harder to achieve.
It’s hard to see why a democracy captured by a few billionaires would care about the callousness of auto companies that fail to repair a defect that would have cost 90 cents per vehicle to fix and cost at least 13 people their lives, as in the recent case of the Chevy Cobalt. Or begin to address the pending catastrophe of climate change, or enact meaningful chemical reform, or do a thousand other difficult things that need to be done but impose real costs on the current economic winners in our system as it is.
Already in America, rich folks live more than a decade longer than the poor. While Roberts is waxing poetic about the First Amendment needing to pad further protections around the wealthiest .0004 percent (or 1300 out of 314 million), we must be building a movement for real and lasting change.
Although I’d been a skeptic on this strategy prior to this moment, I’m now hoping that the Court’s latest boneheaded decision will be enough to jump-start a social movement for a Constitutional Amendment clarifying that corporations really are not people and that the First Amendment doesn’t mean “freedom of money” when it clearly just says “freedom of speech.”
Without these eminently reasonable clarifications, we’ll have a Constitution and a Congress that only work for corporations and the very, very rich. While it’s a long haul to get an Amendment passed, where the Court is headed is clear. We can start to fight today, or lose our country as we know it someday soon.
You might also like: