The Campaign-Finance Transparency Canard … In All Its Orwellian Splendor

For the reasons explained above, we now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Jan. 21, 2010

I should have foreseen it on Monday.  That was the day that the Washington Post published a high-profile article by Matea Gold, one of the Post’s national political reporters, headlined “Big money in politics emerges as a rising issue in 2016 campaign.”  Five of the Post’s other national political reporters contributed to the piece, two of them reporting from New Hampshire.

By “it”—that is, the thing I should have seen coming—I mean the Orwellian attempt by Republicans to blame campaign-finance laws for the billionaire co-optation of politicians instead of on, say, the Supreme Court’s dismantling of those laws.

The thrust of Gold’s article is this: Historically, the general public laments the influence of large campaign-finance donors—those who contribute directly to campaigns or parties, and those who run or contribute to ostensibly independent PACs and, now, SuperPACs—most people cite specific substantive policy concerns such as the state of the economy, rather than the influence of large donors, as their main political concerns, because, well, most people don’t connect government policy to who’s paying for the policymakers’ elections.  But now, because of the clear, well-known effect of Citizens United (and McCutcheon v. FEC, whose name and specifics most of the public does not know, but whose effect the public does know, albeit under the rubric of Citizens United), large swaths of the public are, finally, connecting the dots between government policy and campaign-finance practices, whatever the guise.

Uh-oh.  Much of the public is now not only onto the Koch brothers, but recognizes that the Koch brothers and others who are nearly as wealthy are effectively the puppeteers to the candidates for national public office—and may soon become aware that that is as true of elections for state government.  All three branches of it.

Not to worry.  Republican pundits Ed Rogers and Kathleen Parker have the answer.  Which they’ve wasted no time in laying out in their respective forums in the Washington Post forums, Rogers in his blog there surprisingly honestly titled “The Insiders,” Parker in her syndicated column.

Rogers, a longtime high-profile Republican political consultant inside and outside Republican White House administrations, and now (to quote the bio line at the bottom of his blog posts) “the chairman of the lobbying and communications firm BGR Group, which he founded with former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour in 1991,” announces in both the title and the body of a blog post yesterday that he is “embarrassed by our campaign finance system.”  Yup.  The first paragraph of his post reads:

I’m embarrassed by our campaign finance system. And as a long-time participant in the system, for me to get here, it must be pretty bad. So-called “campaign finance reform laws” have created a surreal world where the official campaigns aren’t where the campaigning is being done. I can’t say it any better than the recent article “Trading Places” in the National Journal. Tim Alberta and Shane Goldmacher, who wrote this thoughtful piece about the impact and increasing necessity of super PACs, said, “[SuperPACs] pose an existential threat to the old order. The campaigns themselves may soon become subordinate; as Mitt Romney demonstrated in the 2012 primary, a candidate can win without an effective campaign but not without an effective super PAC.” How can the public interest be served in a world where an unaccountable super PAC is actually bigger than a candidate’s formal campaign?

It can’t, Rogers concludes.  But not because a few exceedingly wealthy people are dictating candidate campaign platforms—they hold their own private primaries these days—and, of course, actual government policy by those whom they sponsored as candidates.  Uh-uh.  No, Sir. No, Ma’am.  No how. No way.  It’s because of a lack of transparency regarding who is funding whose SuperPACs.

And whose fault is it that this system has developed and is having the effect that it’s having?  The drafters and supporters of the post-Watergate and 2001 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance statutes!  Without which we would have had no commandeering of candidates, elected officials and (consequently) of government policy!  Uh-uh.  No, Sir. No, Ma’am.  No how. No way.

If extremely wealthy individuals could donate unrestricted amounts of money directly to campaigns and parties, and have to identify themselves as doing that, the public would also be entitled to transcripts of these folks’ phone and in-person conversations, and email exchanges, with their candidate-proxies/elected-officials, see.

Problem solved!  Or it would be, if only we would just kill the remaining campaign-finance restrictions before the Supreme Court does, and require it all to be … transparent.

Rogers’ post reminds me of those old children’s black-and-white game book puzzles in which the object is to find the obscured animal in the thicket of the drawing’s foliage.  He’s now, finally, after many decades as a participant in the system, embarrassed by that system, because of how very bad it now is.  But it’s the campaign finance reform laws—the so-called ones, not the real ones—that have created a surreal world where the official campaigns aren’t where the campaigning is being done.

Yes, that’s right.  You probably thought that the Supreme Court’s literally spontaneous campaign finance “reform” law announced under the auspices of First Amendment jurisprudence in January 2010, and “enhanced in the name of freedom by the court’s majority last year in McCutcheon v. FEC, striking down most of the McCain-Feingold law, played some role in creating a surreal world where the official campaigns aren’t where the campaigning is being done.   But it didn’t.  Uh-uh.

We know that, because although Rogers admits that it is only now that he’s finally embarrassed about our campaign-finance system–13 years after McCain-Feingold was enacted but four years after the Supreme Court decimated that statute–he’s embarressed by the system propogated by McCain-Feingold, a system that is now a quaint memory.  The embarrassment is totally unrelated to the Supreme Court’s nullifiçation of most of the statute.  Which explains why he doesn’t mention Citizens United, much less McCutcheon. He doesn’t mention the Supreme Court and Citizens United, at all.

So there.

The animal figures in the drawing are really, really obscured.  But he assures us that they’re there.  The campaign-finance laws left standing for now, he complains, are quickly rendering the campaigns themselves subordinate.  As Mitt Romney demonstrated in the 2012 primary, a candidate can win without an effective campaign but not without an effective super PAC.  So, how can the public interest be served in a world where an unaccountable super PAC is actually bigger than a candidate’s formal campaign? he asks.

But by design, he’s asking the wrong question.  So I’ll ask the right one, which is: How can the public interest be served in a world where a handful of billionaires puppet campaigns of others for public office and have secret, direct access to the candidates and who direct campaign positions the goal of which is to ultimately dictate government policy?  It is not, and it cannot.  And that’s true whether unlimited money goes directly to a candidate or party, or both, or whether instead it goes to a SuperPAC.

The demand for transparency is largely a canard, a way to render false assurances that the problem is entirely or mainly secrecy of the identity of the benefactors.  We know who the Kochs are and whom, and what, they support, because they’ve been open about it.  Same with Sheldon Adelson and Tom Steyer.  So what?

Parker’s column today is worse than Rogers’ post, but because of its obvious Orwellian feel will just prompt shrugs, I’d guess.  She writes, in a piece titled “Mr. Hughes Goes to Washington”:

Setting aside for now the debate about security, let’s turn our attention to [gyrocopter pilot Doug Hughes’] proclaimed mission of shining a light on our corrupt campaign finance system and his urgent plea for reform.

We tried that, Mr. Hughes, and it created an even bigger mess. [Italics in original.]Today’s salient political adage goes like this: Behind every successful politician is a billionaire — or several.

We did indeed try that, Ms. Parker.  And for a decade or so it worked reasonably well.  But, see, that decade saw the Democrats take control of both houses of Congress from the Republicans as well as the election of Barack Obama.  So although the Supreme Court majority initially killed most of McCain-Feingold in order to allow corporate CEOs to use shareholder money to support Republican candidates directly and indirectly, what we have as a result is less the influence of corporate money than the purchasing of federal, state and local government policy by a billionaire.  Or several.

It turns out that it’s the “several” part that Parker, and probably Rogers, finds problematic.  Parker dedicates much of the remainder of her column to Hillary Clinton’s call last week for mandated transparency in campaign finance in its various forms, because, well, transparency has not been Clinton’s strong suit.  Clinton has a pretty broad base of large donors, apparently. Anyway, Parker writes:

This tells us two things: Transparency polled well in focus groups; Clinton is adept in the art of political jujitsu.

Campaign finance reform is indeed on many minds, if only in greater America. Beyond the Beltway, people like Doug Hughes choke and spit when talking about politics and politicians. The notion that a few rich people can determine who leads this essential nation is a sour, cynical-making joke that borders on the criminal.

As noted in the quote from Citizens United that opens this post, Justice Kennedy and four of his colleagues beg to differ.  But Parker and Kennedy agree on the elixir.  Parker continues:

There’s nothing free about paid-for elections — unless everybody knows where the money came from. [Italics in original.] Ever since the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, generally known as “McCain-Feingold,” our two-party system has been on life support. If in pre-reform America, too many wealthy people were donating large sums to candidates, at least we usually knew who they were. In post-reform America, too many are still giving large donations — but in the shadows.

As one philanthropist put it to me, “Money will always find a way.”

Funny, but I wasn’t aware that the two-party system was on life support between 2002 and 2010, although I guess it might have appeared that way to someone who liked the idea of a one-party system as long as the one party is the Republican one.  (I am not such a person.)  I’d argue instead that the two-party system’s demise, as Parker and Rogers seem to mean it, came not as a result of the enactment eight years earlier of McCain-Feingold but instead from the rise of the Tea Party and therefore as a result of that Supreme Court opinion that cannot be mentioned in polite company.  Or in Republican pundits’ commentary.

Nor am I aware that money always finds a way in the other democracies. The other democracies in the world–the actual ones, and there are a number of them–manage to ensure that it doesn’t.

Left unexplained by these folks, and by others, possibly including Hillary Clinton, is why they believe that the purchase of candidates’ platforms and, ultimately, of elected officials’ policy positions is pernicious only when done via SuperPAC; the purchase of candidates and entire parties is fine, because, see, we know that Republicans audition with the Kochs, and we know these brothers are billionaires many times over, but that would be unimportant if only the brothers could make direct payments to the campaigns and parties.

Hillary Clinton may be adept at political jujitsu, but suffice it to say that she has no monopoly on it.

I do accept Parker’s characterization (however unwitting but by her own terms accurate) of Kennedy & Friends’ actions as bordering on criminal, though. And that money does find a way in this democracy.  But only in this democracy.  By resounding democratic majorities of 5-4.

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