I’m disappointed with last week’s ruling on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, as the U.S. Supreme Court struck yet-another blow against badly needed campaign-finance law. But I am also exceptionally disappointed with the public reaction.
Nearly everything was within the context of the insider game of politics. Did the lobbyists win or lose? How will this affect mega-donors like Sheldon Adelson? Did the parties become more relevant than the super PACs? Did senior legislators get a leg up on fundraising?
The most important question is: What does this mean for the American people and the government that is supposed to work for them? The discussion centered on the “game” of politics, and who wins and loses among the players. Few asked: “How do the people fare?”
My experience with these types of campaign-finance decisions is that we rarely understand the true impact until years into the future. The McCain-Feingold law didn’t pan out as expected, and the ramifications of the Citizens United decision are still unfolding in our electoral process. But ultimately, no matter how this ruling plays out, more money in the political system is probably not a good thing for this country.
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That’s the real issue at stake, and it is almost as if we have collectively given up being shocked or outraged by ridiculous sums of money in our political system.
The impact of more money – be it super-PAC money, individual mega-donor money or lobbyist money – is not healthy. More money will only further limit our government’s ability to solve any of the myriad problems before us and produce continued gridlock.
Nowhere in the analysis of the McCutcheon decision have I seen anything about how it will affect federal policymaking to address our crumbling infrastructure, improve our education system, fund crucial scientific and medical research, and a litany of other problems. Most of the money raised in electoral politics is used to finance negative media ads, which tend to tear down political candidates and rarely build confidence that the system is working well. Money used in this way further erodes what little confidence the American people have that our political system is on the level for the 300 million Americans who can never dream of busting the current cap on contributions.
Responses to this ruling looked to the future for insiders. For the roughly 600 people who maxed out their contributions to political campaigns (of which nearly 200 live in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area), this may have big implications for their work, their bottom lines, their business portfolios and so forth. Of course, the result of this ruling could also change the way legislators approach possible donors.
But all of this is insignificant and unimportant compared with the effect that more big money will have on actual Americans.
It has been said that “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” but that doesn’t have to mean it is the entire food chain. Politics should not be just some inside game played by Washington power brokers and campaigns chasing dollars. Campaign-finance laws comprise a key element of the ground rules for our political system to operate in a world where American leadership in the domestic and international arena is needed now more than ever.
It is quite clear to me that once you view this ruling outside the game of politics, it is more bad news for almost every American.
Years ago the singer Peggy Lee sang the song “Is That All There Is?” She wasn’t talking about campaign dollars, but it is worth asking if all there is to politics is money, or if the public good also is important.