Paul Nitze: Money-politics marriage is in need of counseling
December 30, 2009
Sen. Michael Bennet was in town on Monday night to raise money for what’s likely to be the most expensive political race in Colorado history. He looked a little bushed, unsurprising for a guy who has raised about $15,000 a day since he was appointed.
Much was made of the fatigue that set in after the Senate spent over a month in continuous session – Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid was so wiped out he briefly voted against his own bill. As tiring (and ugly) as the legislative battle over health care was for many senators, chances are that it was a welcome break from fundraising for those who are up for re-election in 2010.
In-cycle senators like Bennet can’t really be classified as “lawmakers.” They’re better described as professional fundraisers who moonlight as lawmakers. As much money as Bennet has already raised (closing in on $5 million), he is expected to raise at least $10 million more next year.
Those are high-touch contributions. Over and over and over again, Bennet and others in the same spot have to dial for dollars. Larger events are actually a break from the monotony of calls. It’s even worse for House members. At least the winner of Bennet’s seat will get a break for a few years.
Last week’s strictly party-line vote in the Senate has put a lot of people in even graver doubt than usual about where our country is headed. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to sees it as a sign of deep dysfunction in Congress and the loss of civility in our political culture.
There is no single cure for those ailments, but a continuing resolve to control the role of money in politics has got to be part of the treatment plan. Some cynics view campaign finance legislation as a waste of time. They think keeping money out of politics is about as realistic as keeping Santa Claus out of Christmas.
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But the truth is a lot more complicated than that. Flawed as our efforts have been, the McCain-Feingold Bill that was passed in 2002, and the earlier limits put in place in the 1970s, have helped keep a lid on corruption and influence peddling. Amazingly, Congress has shown a willingness to engage in intermittent bouts of self-denial.
Now the Supreme Court is on the brink of taking that power away from Congress. Sometime next month the Court will issue an opinion in Citizens United v. FEC, a case about the constitutionality of banning corporate and union spending on federal elections. Rather than decide the case on narrow grounds, the Court heard re-argument this summer on questions of law that have been settled for at least 60 years. This is judicial activism that would make even the Warren Court blush.
Now is the time to voice our collective outrage about the Supreme Court’s project to gut our campaign finance architecture. Chief Justice Roberts and others in the conservative bloc who support this project are sensitive to popular opinion. One sign is the fact that the opinion in Citizens United has been delayed, a possible indication that one of the justices is forcing a rewrite of the majority opinion.
If you’re in favor of a new Gilded Age, in which politicians are wholly captured by corporate interests, you have a friend in Justice Scalia. He thinks unlimited corporate contributions have a cleansing effect on the political process, and allow for outside interests to keep an increasingly “Orwellian” government in check. Now is his moment to get five votes in support of that view.
This has been a conservative project largely because Republicans have been hurt by individual and corporate contribution limits more than Democrats. But that’s changing. When President Obama took the White House there was a disconnect between his message of change and the ungodly amounts of money his campaign raised to put him there.
Bumbling as Congress’s efforts on campaign finance have been, legislators have got to be allowed to keep chipping away at this problem. Democrats’ newfound financial firepower may increase the likelihood that John McCain will not be the only Republican to back future bills.
The founders did not envision a republic in which every voice carried equal weight in the political process. If you take a quick tour of the Federalist Papers, you see that Madison and Jay spoke of those with greater property marshaling greater influence. They did not expect the Constitution to dispense with that inequality – after all, only a fraction of the population could even vote.
Two centuries later, we live in a world of disparate influence that the founders could not have imagined. Everything has got to be on the table as we try to broaden our political debate beyond the Fortune 500 and Forbes 400: public financing, contribution limits, advertising restrictions, barriers to self-financing, you name it.
Election 2008 put the nail in the coffin of public financing of presidential elections. That was depressing enough for campaign finance hawks. Unlimited corporate and union spending could make next year’s elections even worse.