Campaign Finance

For those of you who don't know, the Supreme Court recently struck down aggregate limits on political donations. Herewith a brief summary of campaign finance laws:

Used to be there were limits on how much money you could give to candidates or political parties, and there were strict rules on PACs and how closely they could be affiliated with candidates or parties. Started in the 70s, after Watergate. But in succession, the Supremes struck down:

Laws on contributing to PACs.

Laws on PAC relationships to candidates and parties.

Most recently, "aggregate limits." In addition to not being able to contribute more'n $5200 ($32,000 for corporations) to any one candidate or party per election cycle, you couldn't contribute more'n $123,000 total per election cycle. That "aggregate" part is what fell last week. Now anybody can give as much as they want, but they have to spread it around in bite-size chunks, because the individual limits still stand, for now.

The following two op-eds pretty much represent the two sides:

In politics, money is speech

By Robert J. Samuelson (external - login to view), Published: April 6

On its present course, the Supreme Court will ultimately overrule its 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, the landmark case upholding campaign finance “reform” (external - login to view) legislation. It can’t come too soon, because Buckley expressly ignored the First Amendment’s injunction (external - login to view) that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Instead of free speech, we now have regulated speech that has ensnarled elections in a web of bizarre and opaque rules. Last week, in McCutcheon et al. v. Federal Election Commission, the court began edging away from Buckley by striking down one of its limits on free speech. The details are less important than the court’s direction.

Let’s be clear about the stakes.

Free speech is not speech you agree with, uttered by someone you admire. It’s speech that you find stupid, selfish, dangerous, uninformed or threatening, spoken and sponsored by someone you despise, fear or ridicule. Free speech is unpopular, contentious and sometimes ugly. It reflects a tolerance for differences. If everyone agreed on all things, we wouldn’t need it.

In American democracy, this free speech plays two vital roles. The first is well recognized. It is to shape public opinion and to influence elections that, in turn, determine the social climate and steer government. We cherish “the marketplace of ideas” because (we assume) it allows us, through give and take, to arrive at better ideas and to grope our way toward consensus on hard issues.

Free speech’s second function is less understood. It buttresses the political system’s legitimacy. It helps losers in the struggle for public opinion and electoral success accept their fates. It helps keep them loyal to the system, even though it has disappointed them. They will accept the outcomes because they believe they’ve had a fair opportunity to express and advance their views. There’s always the next election. Free speech underpins our larger concept of freedom.

Campaign finance “reform” degrades these core virtues in a quixotic effort to regulate politics. How did this happen? The answer is history (external - login to view). Watergate involved some especially sordid campaign solicitations (external - login to view) by President Nixon’s henchmen. When exposed, these abuses inspired a backlash. We would purge politics of the evils of money. A “reform” ideology (external - login to view) arose that subordinated the First Amendment to these lofty ambitions.

In this ideology, money is not speech. Speech is speech; contributions can be curbed to improve the political system without offending the First Amendment. Doing so is important, because the alternative consigns government’s vast powers to the rich. Through disproportionate contributions, these moneyed interests win elections and impose their narrow agenda on the nation. This is the ultimate corruption of politics and government.

All this has had an appealing logic for the high-minded. There is only one problem: Each of these basic beliefs is false.
In politics, money is speech. Political speech is a public phenomenon. It aims to affect how people behave. It requires money to hire campaign staff, build a Web site, buy political spots and the like. Penniless politicians can’t easily communicate. Limiting my ability to contribute to candidates and parties restricts my First Amendment rights.

Still, that doesn’t mean that rich contributors can deliver elections. True, many of the wealthy have evaded the limits on candidate contributions by giving to “independent” groups. But the super-rich are not a monolithic bloc. There are super-rich conservatives and super-rich liberals. Business groups are often splintered. Nor does money guarantee victory. After a certain point, more money hits the law of diminishing returns. It can be and is misspent.

Whatever donors’ influence, government isn’t the preserve of the wealthy or business interests. Most federal spending goes to the poor and the middle class (70 percent in 2014 are “payments for individuals,” says the Office of Management and Budget, for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and other programs), and most taxes are paid by the richest 10 percent (53 percent of all federal taxes in 2010, says the Congressional Budget Office). Most regulations target businesses. Sure, business groups and the rich sometimes secure favorable regulations, tax breaks and subsidies. But their triumphs are a small part of the picture.

Campaign finance “reform” aims to fix a problem that doesn’t really exist. It not only has failed but has actually made the situation worse. In Buckley v. Valeo, the court had to embrace some rationale for its acknowledged limits on First Amendment rights. The chosen reason was preventing “corruption or the appearance of corruption.” So advocates and the courts must constantly repeat that the present system is “corrupt.” Meanwhile, the law’s various limits force people who want to spend above the limits into increasingly complex evasions that look sleazy and defy the spirit of the law. But the fault lies with the law, not the people. The sooner it goes, the better.

Robert J. Samuelson: In politics, money is speech - The Washington Post (external - login to view)

Supreme oligarchy

By E.J. Dionne Jr. (external - login to view), Published: April 6

An oligarchy, Webster’s dictionary tells us, is “a form of government in which the ruling power belongs to a few persons.” It’s a shame that the Republican majority on the Supreme Court doesn’t know the difference between an oligarchy and a democratic republic.

Yes, I said “the Republican majority,” violating a nicety based on the pretense that when people reach the high court, they forget their party allegiance. We need to stop peddling this fiction.

On cases involving the right of Americans to vote and the ability of a very small number of very rich people to exercise unlimited influence on the political process, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and his four allies always side with the wealthy, the powerful and the forces that would advance the political party that put them on the court. The ideological overreach that is wrecking our politics is now also wrecking our jurisprudence.

The court’s latest ruling in McCutcheon et al. v. Federal Election Commission should not be seen in isolation. (The “et al.,” by the way, refers to the Republican National Committee.) It is yet another act of judicial usurpation by five justices who treat the elected branches of our government with contempt and precedent as meaningless. If Congress tries to contain the power of the rich, the Roberts Court will slap it in the face. And if Congress tries to guarantee the voting rights of minorities, the Roberts Court will slap it in the face again.
Notice how these actions work in tandem to make the wealthy more powerful and those who have suffered oppression and discrimination less powerful. You don’t need much imagination to see who benefits from what the court is doing.

Roberts’s McCutcheon ruling obliterates long-standing rules that limit the aggregate amounts of money the super-rich can contribute to various political candidates and committees in any one election cycle. In 2012, individuals could give no more than a total of $70,800 to all political committees and no more than $46,200 to all federal candidates.

The rule is based on a political reality Roberts sweeps aside with faux naivete: Access and power come not just from relationships with individual members of Congress but from strong links to party leaders and party structures. Someone who helps a party keep its majority by contributing to 200 or 300 candidates and Lord knows how many political committees will have a lot more power than you will if you make a $25 contribution in a congressional race.

Roberts writes as if he is defending the First Amendment rights of all of us. But how many people are really empowered by this decision? According to the Center for Responsive Politics (external - login to view), 1,715 donors gave the maximum amount to party committees in 2012, and 591 gave the maximum amount to federal candidates. The current estimate of the population of the United States stands at more than 317 million.

Those using the word “oligarchy” to describe the political regime the Supreme Court is creating are not doing so lightly. Combine McCutcheon with the decision in the Citizens United case and you can see that the court is systematically transferring more power to a tiny, privileged sliver of our people.

I keep emphasizing the word “power” because the Roberts decision pretends that the concept is as distant from this issue as Pluto is from Earth. The philosopher Michael Walzer, in his book “Spheres of Justice (external - login to view),” made the essential distinction: “Freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly: none of these require money payments; none of them are available at auction; they are simply guaranteed to every citizen. . . . Quick access to large audiences is expensive, but that is another matter, not of freedom itself but of influence and power.”

In his McCutcheon opinion, Roberts piously declares: “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” This lovely commitment escaped him entirely last summer when he and his allies threw out Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (external - login to view). Suddenly, efforts to protect the right of minorities “to participate in electing our political leaders” took second place behind all manner of worries about how Congress had constructed the law. The decision unleashed a frenzy in Republican-controlled states to pass laws that make it harder for African Americans, Latinos and poor people to vote.

Thus has this court conferred on wealthy people the right to give vast sums of money to politicians while undercutting the rights of millions of citizens to cast a ballot.

Send in the oligarchs.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Supreme oligarchy - The Washington Post (external - login to view)

I think they both got it wrong, but that's just me.
If the choice was ever on the table, I would gladly see aggregate limits on direct donations to politicians lifted in exchange for getting rid of PACs.

The amount of money at play in the US system really isn't helping anyone. Even many rich people in the US have been expressing their displeasure since they are getting hit up for astronomical amounts of money. When the PACs come knocking at your door, a million dollars is their opening ask, and that amount of money isn't really influential on anything.

If donations all have to come directly through the respective politician, it at least keeps things transparent. And with the current limits on donations to individual politicians, the amount of money at play would be more reasonable. The idea that politicians might have to work more closely together to raise money as a group is also kind of nice, since it could encourage a bit more party discipline and allow congress to actually get some work done every now and then.
With a $2.5 million contribution to Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, Chicago-based hedge fund executive Ken Griffin has written the largest check to a political campaign in recent history.

Griffin, well known for saying the very wealthy have an "insufficient influence (external - login to view)" in politics, is the richest man in Illinois and a top donor in state politics with large donations to both parties. He has made six-figure contributions to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's campaign and funds the state Republican Party.

His contributions to Rauner, first reported by the Chicago Tribune (external - login to view), are stratospheric. Overall, Griffin has given $3.6 million to the Republican's campaign to defeat Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. The contributions include the use of Griffin's personal jet to travel the state.

The $2.5 million contribution to Rauner's campaign is the largest The Huffington Post could identify to a political campaign in recent history. A number of states have no campaign contribution limits, but none have seen a single contribution this large in two decades, according to state records. (Individuals and corporations have likely given larger contributions, when adjusted for inflation, in the past.)
It's not as though Rauner was strapped for campaign cash. In fact, Rauner, a wealthy equity executive who lives in the tony suburb of Winnetka, has self-funded his campaign with $6.6 million.

In a perverse twist of campaign finance laws, Rauner's use of his own wealth to fund his campaign unlocked Griffin's giant contributions.

Illinois first enacted campaign contribution limits for state elections after two straight governors -- George Ryan (R) and Rod Blagojevich (D) -- were convicted of corruption. Following the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the door to unlimited independent campaign spending, the state changed those limits to allow them to be waived if a candidate self-funded, or if an independent group spent more than $250,000.

Griffin is not just a partisan who wants his picture taken with political leaders at galas. He has wide business interests in the state and supports policies that promote charter schools, slash public employee pension benefits, loosen regulation of finance, and lower taxes for the rich.

Pando Daily (external - login to view) revealed that Griffin's hedge fund Citadel had purchased a large amount of Marriott Corp. stock just as political leaders in Chicago and Illinois approved $55 million in city resources for building a Marriott hotel on coveted real estate.

Quinn, the incumbent Democrat, also has raised large contributions, including a total of $1 million from Fred Eychaner, a Chicago-based millionaire and major Democratic donor.
No Party Affiliation
US laws. Irrelevant in the real world.
That's a massive threat to democracy.
Quote: Originally Posted by TurkRuggerView Post

That's a massive threat to democracy.

Goodbye to you and your other account.

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