Don’t look now but pretty soon carpenters in the U.S. Capitol will be replacing the gallery in the House chambers with luxury suites, each being owned by one of the corporate ‘sponsors’ of Congress. That’s the direction were heading in after yesterday’s mind-boggling Supreme Court ruling that ripped the lid off campaign contribution limits for the biggest donors in the electoral game. By a 5-4 vote, the nation’s highest court affirmed the right of big money donors to spend on the great trifecta – candidates, political parties and PACs – without any concern to how much. It is a significant blow to our fledgling democracy as citizens are already a side attraction in the selection of our congressional representation and President.
The ruling shadows the Court’s notorious 2010 decision in Citizen United that unleashed independent spending by corporations and unions. Now deep pocket individuals, many of them tied to corporate interests, have free reign to make it rain upon candidates and causes that more often than not serve the interests of the nation’s moneyed elite. Conservatives on the Court have made it clear what master they serve and there should no longer be any pretense that justice is being served up in the marble pantheon in the backyard of the Capitol. No, the black robed conservatives have no illusion about who pays the bills and whose interest they are appointed to protect.
Money is already spoiling the fruit on the tree. Elective office now has a price tag that very few citizens can afford. Congress has become the ‘Millionaire Boys Club” with a few female stragglers, many of whom are wealthy in their own right. It now takes a hefty sum to seek a congressional seat and depending upon whether the candidate wants to play, there is a long line of check writers waiting to own a piece of the dome. It’s to the point where every speech delivered by a representative on the Hill should be required to start with “And now a word from my sponsor.”
There is something particularly odorous about yesterday’s decision. It reeks of indifference to the American public and it makes a mockery of the Constitution by equating the purchase of political office with the First Amendment. The nation’s wealthy have so many inroads into the corridors of power that a limit on their waging on campaigns in no way interferes with their access. Meanwhile the average citizen is destined to look from the cheap seats with the hope that somebody among the cash money crew will actually serve the public interest.
We are a nation that has acquired a persistent cold, the treatment of which is radical change in the manner in which we elect individuals to serve in our highest offices. With the Court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission, the barn door is open and the horses are galloping out of the stable and stomping everything in their path. Already we see how money has changed the equation. In the days of yesteryear Donald Trump would have been dismissed as a buffoon, but his highly leveraged bank account means he will never go away. Just this week Republican presidential hopefuls were running to Las Vegas to kiss the ring of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The trek to ‘Sin City’ is perhaps symbolic of the gamble our nation is taking by allowing money to determine our leadership.
There was a time when congressional candidates actually had to go out and meet the people in their district. Now, with the influx of big dollars, candidates might as well be avatars since most of their connection with the public is through a video screen. And if the candidates can’t wow you with their ‘I approve this message’ sincerity, then rest assured some well financed phantom group will try to convince you that the candidate they oppose bears the mark of the devil. Political campaigns are so flooded with cash and falsehoods that the ‘who’ that is elected is less important than the source of the money that got him or her elected.
Make no mistake about it; the Court’s decision in McCutcheon is not just about elections. It is also about the influence game in Washington D.C. and the millions of dollars spent on propaganda to support and expand the privilege of the elite. Usually hidden by innocuous names of political action committees, the wealthy and corporate-connected reinforce their entitlement by lining the pockets of the willing and able in Congress, often for the express purpose of buying allegiance. The withering away of industrial regulations, and protections for the public, is the result of years of down payments made by industry through PACs and various other devices. Where congressional oversight committees once made protecting the public their mission, today they are more likely to protect the interest of private industry.
So, what is a democracy to do? In this case the answer is not clear. The roadblock to democratic participation is not moving. In fact, most of the federal judges on the right would rather die in their chambers than surrender their seats. And the justices on the Supreme Court are no different. Congress is a dead-end street. Face it, big money in politics is here to stay and our nation will be the worse for it. Our only recourse may be a low tech-high tech mash up. We need to reengage each other personally, enlighten our personal networks and use social media to connect us to create a critical mass to counter the purchase of our nation.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @WFields.