On the Money: The ‘McCutcheon’ Effect

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Every week Moyers & Company producer Gail Ablow shares her must-read money and politics stories.

Activists rally for a constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on Friday, Jan. 21, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Flickr/ Brendan Hoffman)

Activists rally for a constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on Friday, Jan. 21, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Flickr/ Brendan Hoffman)

The only form of corruption the Supreme Court cares about is almost impossible to prosecute –> In the McCutcheon decision last week, Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority that the First Amendment protects a donor’s right to give money to an unlimited number of candidates. He further determined that the only corruption of concern to the government should be “quid pro quo” — outright bribery or its appearance. Paul Blumenthal and Ryan Reilly at The Huffington Post point out that this narrow definition will make it extremely difficult to build a case against a potentially corrupt congressman or senator because of a provision in the Constitution that says that any “speech or debate” in the House or Senate by a member of Congress “shall not be questioned in any other place.” It has hampered recent cases by preventing prosecutors from introducing into evidence anything a member of Congress did on the job.

John Roberts gets the parties started –> According to early reporting by Politico’s Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, the McCutcheon decision is already inspiring political parties to dream up ways to get big donors to donate even more. They write, “In the past, a donor of this magnitude would have to choose two recipients for their largess. Now, they can offer joint events with top leaders from the House, Senate and the RNC, according to Republican insiders.” Those sources also estimate that there are dozens of donors who will want to pony up more cash and spend it more broadly on races other than the top tier. But getting mega-donors to outdo themselves will require political perks, write Sherman and Palmer. Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta predicts that Democrats will have a harder time since President Obama has banned federal lobbyists from contributing to the DNC over the next two years.

How to reverse a Supreme Court attack on democracy: fight for voting rights –> If you are fuming about the Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, law professor Rick Hasen suggests channeling your anger into protecting voting rights. He writes in The Guardian, “…the American public – all of it – should be just as exercised by the assault on voting rights as it is by the court’s new views on money in politics.” The same wrecking ball swung by the five conservative justices in McCutcheon toppled a key provision of the voting rights act last summer in Shelby County v Holder. Hasen implores people to make Congress pass new laws protecting voting rights, beginning with the Voting Rights Amendments Act (VRAA) introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (R-VT) and Representatives John Conyers (D-MI) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI).

Wall Street targets GOP critic of big money and big banks for primary defeat –> On The Nation’s blog, John Nichols writes about Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), who is trying to work across party lines to reform campaign laws and change the way that campaigns are financed. He has co-sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment, as well as a proposal to develop public financing for congressional races. He supports the Government By the People Act to provide “matching funds” and he’s the only Republican co-sponsor of the Empowering Citizens Act which would renew public financing for presidential elections. When it comes to doing Wall Street’s bidding, however, he’s not towing the party line, which makes him the target of a Republican primary challenge from Taylor Griffin who is backed by powerful Republican lobbyists in DC. Lining up behind Griffin are JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and former RNC chairman and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Prolific donors are behind Perry’s marketing tool –> A Texas Tribune investigation by Alexa Ura examines Gov. Rick Perry’s methods for promoting jobs and development in the state. His chief marketing tool, a quasi-governmental agency called TexasOne, allows many wealthy donors and corporations that have contributed millions to Perry’s political campaigns to also donate to TexasOne – from $1,000 to $250,000 annually. This is legal and TexasOne says people contribute simply because they are interested in the state’s economic development. Ura found, however, that the biggest TexasOne donors have also benefitted personally. She writes, “Since 2003, seven of the 12 top givers have also been beneficiaries of millions of dollars in awards from state economic development programs championed by Perry and that some of their executives have obtained gubernatorial appointments to influential state government boards.” While Perry’s office insists that political giving doesn’t influence its decision making, critics say it fits a pattern of pay-to-play politics.

The short guide to capital in the 21st century —> French economist Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, was published in English last month and people are buzzing that it’s the most important economics book of the year, if not the decade. It makes a compelling case that income inequality is no accident and that it requires government action to rein in capitalism’s excesses. The epic tome is also 696 pages long and if you haven’t cracked it open yet, Matthew Yglesias at Vox.com provides a very helpful and very short, backgrounder. For example:

Can you give me Piketty’s argument in four bullet points?
• The ratio of wealth to income is rising in all developed countries.
• Absent extraordinary interventions, we should expect that trend to continue.
• If it continues, the future will look like the 19th century, where economic elites have predominantly inherited their wealth rather than working for it.
• The best solution would be a globally coordinated effort to tax wealth.

He goes on to provide further explanations, strengths and weaknesses of Piketty’s argument and links to reviews – all in 13 short paragraphs. It will give you a toe-hold until you have time to pick up the book and plow through it yourself — in its original French, of course.

Dig Deeper

The Hounding of Brendan Eich Gives New Cover to Defenders of Dark Money, by Alec MacGillis, New Republic

Rich people rule!, by Larry Bartels, The Washington Post

Steve LaTourette’s SuperPAC spends $44K to oppose his successor’s Tea Party challenger: Matt Lynch, by Sabrina Eaton, Cleveland Plain Dealer

Dems seek to demonize justices, by Alexander Bolton, The Hill

GOP pro–gay marriage funder’s other agenda: Bombing Iran, by Eli Clifton, The Nation

Elizabeth Warren, Kingmaker? Inside the Massachusetts senator’s fight to keep the Senate blue in 2014, by Erika Eichelberger, Mother Jones

Gail Ablow is a producer for Moyers & Company and a Carnegie Visiting Media Fellow, Democracy.
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