The General Public Will Not be Heard

Published: April 4, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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Two headlines; two very different perspectives.

The Wall Street Journal:“High Court Ends Limit on Donations”

The New York Times:“Supreme Cour Strikes Down Political Donation Cap”

In a decision that builds on the 2010 Citizens United case, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision on Wednesday, ruled that placing limits on the total amount of money individuals can donate to political candidates, PACs and political parties is unconstitutional.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades – despite the profound offense such spectacles cause – it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opinion.”

Seems like a reasonable defense of free speech, doesn’t it? It’s not.

You can parse the numbers all you want – as both the Times and Journal do – but the results remain the same: the more money you have, the more access and influence you can buy. So if you’re Charles and David Koch, George Soros, Sheldon Adelson or Shaun McCutcheon you just got a green light to spend your way to political bliss.

Here’s how The Center for Public Integrity put it: “Supreme Court opens door to flood of political cash — again”

Pollster John Zogby was more blunt: “The Supreme Court Endorses Gluttony”

After Watergate, Congress passed laws which capped the amount any individual may donate to any one federal political candidate to $5,200 per two-year election cycle as well as placing a limit of total donations to all candidates and political parties. Their purpose was simple: to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption in the political process.

Roberts, along with Kennedy, Alito, Scalia and Thomas, interpret corruption in terms of a direct offering of money in exchange for political favors.

Reading the dissenting opinion from the bench, Justice Stephen Breyer said that the majority’s conclusion relies on “faulty” legal analysis and “understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions… today’s decision,” Breyer said, “eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.

“Giving, say, $3,000 or more to each of 435 candidates, a total of $1.3 million, certainly can give rise to corruption or fear of corruption. If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision may well open a floodgate,” [allowing] “a few large donations… [to] drown out the voices of the many.”

Speaking on campaign finance, former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson once said, “Who, after all, can seriously contend that a $100,000 donation does not alter the way one thinks about – and quite possibly votes on – an issue?”

Chief Justice Roberts calls this idea “speculation.”

With all due respect, the chief justice is woefully out of touch with the reality behind recent investigations by both TheWashington Post and The Center for Responsive Politics that followed the Koch brothers many multiple, political, money trails.

Mr. Roberts also appears out of touch with political history.

In an Introduction to U.S. Campaign Finance, jurist.org’s Katherine Bacher writes, “Abraham Lincoln paid for his campaign out of his own pocket, which, even with the support of donations from wealthy individuals, nearly bankrupted him. Following the U.S. Civil War, it became clear that politicians would need wealthy families and individuals to help bankroll their campaigns. In exchange, these wealthy groups expected politicians to support their specific interests, such as supporting legislation in certain areas or fighting against proposed legislation in other areas.

“In 1872,” Bacher adds, “the Republican Party and Ulysses S. Grant received significant support from a relatively small group of individuals; for example, nearly a quarter of the Republicans’ campaign expenses were paid for by railroad tycoon Jay Cooke.”

The chief justice is apparently ignorant concerning recent campaign finance history, as well.

In reading his dissenting opinion, Breyer quoted lobbyist Robert Rozen (McCutcheon v. F.E.C., pg. 33): “Even though soft money contributions often go to political parties, the money is given so that the contributors can be close to, and recognized by, Members, Presidents, and Administration officials who have power. Mem­bers, not party staffers or party chairs, raise much of the large soft money contributions.”

Breyer concludes, “Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard.”

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