OPINION – Land of the free?
Not any more.
The Supreme Court handed the keys to the henhouse to the foxes last week when it struck down a decades-old cap on the total amount any individual can contribute to candidates during a two-year election cycle, ruling that caps on the total amount of money an individual can give to political campaigns, PACs and parties are unconstitutional.
It was clearly a split along party lines with the five Republican-appointed justices uniting to overturn the law with the four Democratic appointees asserting their dissent.
As my friend Robin Schichtel said: “I cannot believe our government is for sale and our Supreme Court is the auctioneer.”
Neither can I.
But, it is not unexpected.
Every election cycle we are not only given position papers and detailed surveys telling who is ahead and why, but the latest facts and figures on how much money the candidates have raised, making the money pit as newsworthy as a candidate’s voting record.
Money has, of course, played a large part in our electoral system for ages. Even in the days when candidates barnstormed the countryside, speaking from the back of railroad cars, dollars have translated into votes.
And, while the 1960 race between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, which Kennedy won by a slim margin after some suspicious votes were recorded in Chicago, is the first to come into mind, there have been others. Still, that race did result in the best, and most candid, election-fixing line.
During the campaign, Kennedy joked with reporters: “I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy; ‘Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.’”
Now, of course, we get a lot of lip service from politicians about campaign reform, about how tighter restrictions need to be put in place, and all of those other good things we would hope to hear from one advancing the true precepts of democracy.
But, when it comes down to it, we don’t really see a lot of movement on the subject.
Why should we?
It’s those campaign dollars that separate the winners from the losers.
The problem, however, is that the candidates suddenly find themselves in the position of the “elitists,” who they tend to castigate. Despite their weak protests, they keep the doors closed to those who would seek election, virtually handcuffing the competition.
I clearly remember the 2006 election when two regional Democrats were fighting for their political lives.
Pete Ashdown, a bright young man with good ideas and certainly electable credentials, was challenging Republican Orrin Hatch for his Senate seat. Down the road and across two state lines, Jack Carter, the son of former President Jimmy Carter, was in a scrap against Republican incumbent John Ensign.
Ashdown and Carter went to Las Vegas to try to raise funds for their campaigns. It was one of those events where hopefuls mingle with rich, influential party leaders and donors for support.
They met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who told them that if they didn’t have $1 million of their own money to forget about asking for major help from the party.
Ashdown ended up spending only $250,000 on his campaign and was thoroughly thrashed, garnering just 31 percent of the vote as opposed to Hatch who was swept back into office with 62 percent. Carter fared a little better, earning 41 percent against Ensign’s 55.
Hatch and Ensign, veteran politicians, had much deeper pockets and even though the Senate majority was on the line, Reid and his fellow Democrats refused to ante up some dough to help a couple of guys whose pockets were relatively empty, at least by Hatch and Reid standards.
In writing the Supreme Court’s majority decision, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. stated that this was a First Amendment issue.
“There is no right in our democracy more basic,” he wrote, “than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”
With the new decision, it is clear that those who donate the most get to participate the most.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in a rare display of SCOTUS antagonism, came out swinging and called the majority opinion a disturbing development that raised the overall contribution ceiling to “the number infinity” and allows “a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.”
What this means, of course, is that Big Oil, Big Pharma, the NRA, and other special interest groups will now be free to swing an even larger hammer as they try to stack the political deck in their favor.
As expected, reaction to the decision also cut along party lines.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the Court “has once again reminded Congress that Americans have a constitutional First Amendment right to speak and associate with political candidates and parties of their choice.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., see it for what it is.
“It advantages wealthy people over everybody else,” Schumer said.
So much for “Give us your tired and poor.”
And, although my background is not in law, I fail to understand how limiting campaign contributions is a violation of the First Amendment.
In all actuality, what really happens is that those of us who don’t fly on private jets or run massive corporations are the ones who are silenced because, well, a million bucks can buy a lot of face time with a political candidate while what we, the great unwashed, are able to scrape together might get us a hearty handshake from some flunky aide.
If you really want to know how much influence political donations can buy, go to the Open Secrets website and start punching in the names of your state and federal elected officials, compare their legislative votes against donors and, voila!, the image becomes even clearer as we see their legislative votes go to the highest bidder.
We have, in essence, become a democracy for only the rich who buy influence with the major political parties, insert their puppets, and give us no real choice in the voting booth.
Even when an incumbent has hung on far too long or is egregiously arrogant, unresponsive, or unyielding, they can stay on as long as there are enough dollars in the campaign chest to outspend, rather than out-think, their opponent.
The SCOTUS decision will do nothing but further alienate those who already feel disconnected from a political process that, by allowing itself to be bought and sold, is moving further and further from the ethics and integrity of a once-righteous system.
My vote is not for sale and I refuse to give it to anybody, from either party, under these conditions. Besides, it has been a long time since I found anyone on the local or state level I wanted to spend that vote on anyway.
No, I prefer a candidate I can believe in rather than one I can buy on political ebay.
No bad days!
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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