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Campaign Finance Unleashed: Welcome to the Oligarchy of the United States

Campaign Finance in Brief, Washington Post

Campaign finance reform is just about extinct. It would take what? an act of Congress? to reverse the new status quo. There was animated talk about reversing Citizens United. Now the principle of open funding of politics is being enshrined as the American way.

Humorist Andy Borowitz posted on The New Yorker’s website: “Supreme Court defends wealthy’s right to own government,” a pithy summation of last week’s profoundly disturbing decision. Odd timing: I had just seen Robert Reich’s film Inequality. A national treasure, the former Labor Secretary now teaches at Berkeley and uses his classroom pulpit as the film’s backdrop to lay out what he sees happening in the American economy—and polity. In his matter of fact manner, albeit presented with a sense of remorseful urgency, Reich reviews the genesis and progression of the wealth gap and all its implications showing a scary suspension bridge graph reflecting the highest gap peaks in 1927 and 2007. Admitting frustration, the poor guy’s been ringing the alarm for decades. I share his despair for the apparent erosion of democracy in America.

Following the Court’s 2010 decision on Citizens United which erased restrictions on campaign donations by corporations, this 2014 McCutcheon vs. FEC decision opens the spigot wider by lifting restrictions on individual donations.

The wealthiest Americans now have full reign to craft government action: co-opting beholden elected officials to evolve the gamut of regulatory (especially finance,) foreign, drug, communications, defense, environmental–whatever policies are on their agenda to advance business or policy interests. We can not have government “of the people, by the people and for the people” if corporations are afforded the rights of “persons” before the court and if the wealthiest really human individuals among us are afforded such wildly disproportionate capacity to shape policy. The door’s been thrown wide open to the Sheldon Adelson’s of the world. It’s no wonder that last week, fully five Republican governors supplicated his attention: one dollar, one vote.

Our democracy is a porous ecosystem vulnerable to increasingly institutionalized manipulation by issue-specific interests. The conservative justices in the 5-4 majority, based their judgment to further deregulate campaign contributions on a narrow definition of corruption. A funny thought came to mind. Former President Bill Clinton’s deft deflection to the persistent questioning on an awkward topic by the special prosecutor: “It depends on what your definition of is is.” For heaven’s sake! …. Who will dare say “The Emperor is not wearing any clothes!?” How could a politician not be influenced by receiving crucial campaign dollars from a well-intentioned upstanding citizen with millions to invest?

A campaign finance attorney for John McCain’s presidential campaign, commenting about the history of political contributions described how, at one time, corporate leaders begged the government to outlaw private sector campaign finance because they were being so pressured by politicians to contribute.

Last week’s decision in the case of McCutcheon v. FEC, further eliminated restrictions on donations to political campaigns, by upholding the limit on individual contributions to any one campaign ($5,200) but striking down the prior $123,000 aggregate contribution limit, thereby allowing individuals to contribute to as many candidates as they wish. The Center for Responsive Politics found that in the 2012 election cycle, 646 donors hit the limit. Now suitors know that donors can no longer claim they’ve reached their limits. Alas, how far we’ve come. The Christian Science Monitor observes: “So who are these top donors? Two-thirds support primarily GOP candidates. One-third work in the financial sector.” …and there are huge pots of so-called “dark money” going into a variety of non-profits and PACs and then the tens of millions spent on presidential campaigns.

The third strategic target to eliminate restrictions will be to seek the Court’s striking down of this individual contributor’s $5,200 per candidate limit which will then build the aggregate into the stratosphere.

The PBS News Hour aired an excellent segment on the subject full of references, such as: for the six elections from 1976-1996, all presidential candidates accepted campaign finance limits and agreed to public funding—including Ronald Reagan. The campaign of George W. Bush changed that record. Initially competing to see who could sound more noble denying private funds, Barack Obama and John McCain–whose eponymous bill is DOA—ended up taking private contributions.

Commenting on the Republican-appointed justices’ focus on the first amendment right to freedom of expression, David Brooks noted that while conservatives see no reason to proscribe limits on campaign finance as demonstration of that right, they have not demonstrated a similar zest for such freedom when it comes to voter registration.

This is madness. Imagine that now a single individual could theoretically invest $7 million in direct congressional candidate campaign contributions. With overall campaign spending now routinely amounting to billions of dollars, one wonders what progress we might make shoring up our corroding infrastructure by putting this money to more useful purpose—with true government “for the people” as a bonus!

There can be no question that contributing buys influence. One has only to watch children being monitored for behavioral science experiments to examine how early we humans form ethical principles which are now increasingly thought to be hard-wired. Children who watch a puppet being unhelpful or mean to another puppet, express no interest in the offending puppet and only want to engage with the puppet who was considerate.


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