Littwin: We love our American politic$
Like many of you, I am thrilled that the Supreme Court, in its supreme wisdom, has ruled that what our dysfunctional political system could really use is more money.
OK, I’m not actually thrilled. No one this side of Sheldon Adelson is actually thrilled.
In the 2012 federal election cycle, our politicians and their big-money allies spent something like $12 billion. And look where it has gotten us. Whatever side of the political divide you find yourself on, we can all probably agree that this is one time when throwing money at a problem hasn’t helped.
You don’t need a poll to understand this. All you need to do is listen to the politicians railing that the other guy’s money is no good. That’s why you hear that Michael Bloomberg is trying to buy an election. Or that the Koch brothers are paying an actress to tell us in a political ad that, yes, she doesn’t like political ads.
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It’s the Adelson money tour that explains why it’s wrong to simply blame the Supreme Court. Do you think the Adelson Four will pay any political cost for their group humbling?
Here’s what else we can agree on: There’s too much money in politics. Politicians spend too much time raising it. People with money have too much access to the people with power.
And, coincidentally, our political system is out of whack.
The main problem with the big money in politics is that it is growing ever larger and, based on the latest news, will continue to do so.
But despite what you might expect me to say here, this is not all the Supreme Court’s fault. It’s just mostly the Supreme Court’s fault. Everyone gets a share of the blame here, or at least everyone who votes.
The court did give us Citizens United, which gave us Adelson, who gave us Newt Gingrich redux in the course of spending something like $90 million in a vain effort to beat Barack Obama. And now the court has ruled, in McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Comission, that Congress can’t limit the aggregate amount of money you can spend on candidates. As of today — but don’t hold your breath — there’s a limit of $5,200 you can spend on a single federal candidate in an election cycle. But there also was a limit of $123,000 that you could spend on all candidates. That, now, is gone.
Congress put it in there to limit the influence of big spenders, but the court says there are now so many ways to spend money on campaigns that this is just small-stakes stuff and not where you’d go to buy influence — not that influence is a bad thing, anyway. And only about 600 people maxed out under the old rules.
But election-law experts say that this is just the beginning — that, with this ruling, you can expect a deregulation of most federal campaign-money limits, which probably will work as well as the airlines deregulation did. How long will it be before the Supreme Court starts charging us for luggage?
Chief Justice John Roberts, in writing the ruling opinion, concluded that Congress would be in violation of the First Amendment if it tried to “level the playing field” or “level electoral opportunities,” and since money is speech and big money is just big speech, you can see the problem — limiting big money is like limiting loud, obnoxious speech.
As Amy Davidson points out in the New Yorker, Roberts believes these rich donors need this protection. Roberts wrote, “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects,” noting that “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 opposition.”
The one thing Congress can do, Roberts wrote, is to make sure elections aren’t corrupt. And here’s where the experts say everything falls apart: Roberts wrote that corruption basically begins and ends with bribery — I give you money, and you vote this way.
And yet we understand that our politics are corrupted in a hundred different ways. But Roberts insists it’s not a problem if big money affords access or demands that a candidate show his or her gratitude — that it’s just the way the Founding Fathers foresaw it. You can take it from there: If Congress can’t do anything to level the playing field, and shouldn’t worry about the obvious influence of big money, what’s left?
Here’s what’s left: four potential Republican presidential candidates — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker and John Kasich — showing up at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas for what they’re calling the Sheldon Adelson primary, in which they auditioned for some of the casino owner’s $39.9 billion. The big news was that after Christie’s speech, he would have to apologize to Adelson for mistakenly calling the “occupied territories” the “occupied territories,” which probably got him barred from Adelson’s craps tables.
It’s the Adelson money tour that explains why it’s wrong to simply blame the Supreme Court. Do you think the Adelson Four will pay any political cost for their group humbling? Of course not. This is the new accepted normal — or maybe just the old accepted normal. We don’t simply tolerate the money wars; we grade the candidates by how much they raise. Money always outs, and attempts to limit it in politics always seem to fail.
The Washington Post has a funny/sad piece on the many attempts to limit money in elections, dating back to — get ready — George Washington. It seems that in 1755 Washington ran for the Virginia Colonial Legislature — the House of Burgesses — and lost. According to the Post, when he ran two years later, he made sure to buy $195 worth of refreshments for his friends, causing outraged legislators to pass a law prohibiting “money, meat, drink, entertainment or provision or … any present, gift, reward or entertainment etc. in order to be elected.”
Washington went on to have a decent career anyway. Father of our country. And, just maybe, father of the open bar.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.
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