On Oct. 8, the Supreme Court listened to a challenge to perhaps the last shred of campaign finance reform left after their Citizens United decision of 2010 – a limit on the total direct contributions from individuals to candidates. The Court had already allowed unlimited campaign spending through PACs and Super-PACs, but there was still, somehow, a limit to the total amount of money an individual could give to candidates in a federal election to a total of $48,600 every two years. Shaun McCutcheon, who runs a successful engineering firm in Alabama, had maxed out his donations to conservative candidates, and couldn’t understand why he had to stop.
The Supreme Court discussion focused on ways that a single individual, using PACs and indirect contributions, might be able to contribute $3.6 million to a specific candidate. Justice Scalia, referring to the costs of the entire 2010 congressional elections, said “When you add all that up, I don’t think $3.5 million is all that much.” In reply, Solicitor General Verilli pointed out that only 500 mega donors at $3.6 million each, could have paid for the entire congressional election. According to the Center for Responsive Politics “ only about 241,000 of us gave more than $2,500 in the 2012 election cycle — about 0.08% of the population. Yet those 0.08% of Americans accounted for $2.1 billion in contributions in 2012.”
While most of the discussion seems to have focused on the risk and perception of corruption, there seems to have been little said about the simple problem of access and the Washington bubble. According to the New York Times, McCutcheon said “that he had met some 15 senators during recent trips to Washington and had extended discussions with Mr. McConnell and Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah. ‘I never expected that kind of one-on-one time with sitting senators,’ he said. ‘I never expected that in my lifetime. I’m way more well known in D.C. than in Alabama now.’”
Every political donation has its rewards. A donation as small as $3 gets you notifications of the Obama family events. You’ll be told about Barry’s birthday and Michele’s birthday and even learn what gift would make them especially happy (hint, it’s another $3). But, as McCutcheon shows us, once you get on the leader board, the situation is reversed. While most of us never have direct contact with any elected official above the level of the local school board, McCutcheon gets to deal with people at the top of the heap. Once you get to the real money, on the order of the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson, it’s easy to imagine senators and congressmen lining up to be their Facebook friends, let alone actually have extended discussions.
And that’s a big hunk of the problem. Campaign donations may not buy specific votes, but when politicians devote their time to soliciting donations and showing appreciation for the contributions, the effect is to enforce the infamous Washington bubble. Politicians spend time listening to affluent contributors (junior staffers read constituent mail and probably know more about what’s going on in the district than their bosses do.) Washington has become so polarized that officials may choose to insulate themselves from points of view that don’t totally reflect their own. Antonin Scalia, a man whose opinion matters very much, explained in an interview why he had dropped his subscription to the Washington Post: “It was the treatment of almost any conservative issue. It was slanted and often nasty. And, you know, why should I get upset every morning?”
Probably, because of the sharply divided nature of the electorate, money means less in politics than it used to. Money buys television time to sell a specific candidate or policy, but in these times of extreme division, it’s far more sensible, to vote a straight party line. Where an undecided voter used to mean someone giving long thought to their choice, it increasingly indicates someone who hasn’t been paying attention.
And so, politicians spend time speaking to people who are totally non-representative of the electorate, yet come to believe that there really is a groundswell of support for their positions. Members of both parties devote excessive time to fund raising and showing appreciation; the Democrats just have a slight edge by having fewer maxed out contributors. Perhaps the most obvious example of a bubble mentality, even in the face of facts, was Karl Rove on Fox news the night of President Obama’s re-election. Rove was one of the most successful political strategists of recent times, and had access to all the polling data, but he had spent too much time talking to true believers.
Classic corruption on the order of Randy Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.) is probably very rare, because by the time a politician votes in favor a a contributor he probably believes he’s doing the right thing. Extended discussions with big money donors have that effect, and they don’t leave time for reality.
Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2013
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