Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Ins and Outs of Politics

The ins, of course, are incumbents; the outs are everyone else.
How difficult is it for the outs to get in? The short answer is – nearly impossible.
Campaign finance reform was supposed to make it easier for the outs to break into the magic political circle. This has not happened, partly because of the influence of Super PACs.
A PAC is a Political Action Committee; a Super PAC is a very large and wealthy PAC operating outside the precincts of political parties.
McCain-Feingold – and its equivalent in the U.S. House, Shays-Meehan – more or less illegalized large “soft money” contributions to political parties. The U.S. Supreme Court, reviewing the campaign finance bill, determined that a legislative directive outlawing “soft money” contributions to PACs not directly connected to political parties was an unconstitutional prohibition that violated the First Amendment. The court’s ruling opened a Pandora’s Box that now allows outliers, persons and groups not formally attached to parties, to raise and spend unlimited sums of money to advocate for or against political candidates.
In an interview with Ameriborn News, former U.S. Representative Chris Shays was asked by interviewer John Doyle to dilate on the relationship between Shays-Meehan and Super PACS:
“Doyle: I’m realty short on my time, but I can’t resist just asking you this, and I tried to cage you into it before: After Citizens United, there are a great many people in the United States who say to both parties, I think, that are just rolling in money, and the corrosive effect it’s having on our campaigns, whether it’s the presidential campaign.. now it’s the Obama fund raising machine with its Super PACs and, of course, the wealthy people supporting various Republican candidates… ah, Shays-Meehan, one of the early…
“Shays: That’s campaign finance reform. Let me give you the quick version. The quick version is:  In 1906 the Tillman Act said corporations could not contribute to campaigns. The Taft Hartley Act in [19]47 said unions can’t contribute to campaigns, and you got FEC, the federal Elections Commission, to bypass the laws by creating the concept of soft educational money, which was just a front to bring both the corporations and the unions back in. So, John McCain in the Senate and I in the House looked to enforce the [19]06 laws: no corporate money, no union dues money.  We had already limited what individuals could contribute to campaigns. And John McCain said if it’s constitutional, we’ll call it McCain-Feingold and, if it’s unconstitutional, it’s called Shays-Meehan. And then, they [the Supreme Court] revisited one part and said you couldn’t limit what corporations could contribute to campaigns. And they’re just [describing] the marketplace in a way that I think is really destructive. But you know what? I’ve fought that battle. I’ve come to the conclusion if the Federal Elections Commission isn’t going to be with you, however you write the law, they’re going to twist it, and it will be a wasted effort. And I kind of feel like -- You know what? – our country is going bankrupt; we have no energy independence; our infrastructure is falling apart; we haven’t reformed the tax code; we haven’t gotten rid of the red tape. Those are where I’m putting my focus.”
The evolution of the Tillman Act is instructive. Following the 1904 presidential election, charges were made that Republican President Teddy Roosevelt had accepted campaign contributions from corporations, a great personal embarrassment. Once in office, Mr. Roosevelt proposed that all contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law. Mr. Roosevelt, one of the more accomplished demagogues of the Gilded Age -- just ask Mark Twain – during his independent run for the presidency on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912, would make it a point to denounce the malefactors of great wealth who once generously had invested in his winning 1904 campaign.

South Carolina Senator Benjamin Tillman obliged Mr. Roosevelt by sponsoring a bill that became known as the Tillman Act. The bill passed the Senate in June of 1906, causing the New York Times to burst into song. One “great financial authority who is a Republican,” the Times reported, “gave assurance that 'he and all the financial men with whom I have talked have welcomed this legislation with very much the same emotions with which a serf would hail his liberation from a tyrannous autocrat.’”
The Tillman Act, said the Times, “will not bring about the millennium, but will lessen a very mean and sordid practice of blackmail... the great number of corporations that have suffered extortion through weakness and cowardice will have their backbones stiffened, and parties will be put to it to fill their coffers by really voluntary contributions."

The end result of McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehan is not a happy one. The bill ultimately removed from political parties large and politically decisive contributions and placed them in the hands of extra-party financers who are able, by investing in individual politicians, to determine political winners and losers. And Super PAC operators are no less autocratic or tyrannous than the malefactors of great wealth once denounced by the first progressive; they are simply less visible and more irresponsible.
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