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Originally published Thursday, April 3, 2014 at 5:22 PM

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Surprise! The rich won one

The Supreme Court’s bottom line, in its McCutcheon ruling, was that the Founding Fathers intended America to be a country in which every citizen had the inalienable right to donate, say, $3.6 million every two years, writes syndicated columnist Gail Collins.


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Today, we are going to discuss the U.S. Supreme Court decision on political donations. Already, we have run into a terrible problem, which is the difficulty in having a fun conversation about campaign finance laws.

Let me try for a second: On Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who once played Peppermint Patty in a school production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” told the nation it was unconstitutional to say that a rich person could only give a total of $123,200 to congressional campaigns each election cycle. This would have been called the majority decision, except that Clarence Thomas, who never talks in court and had that pubic hair controversy back in the day, wrote a little memo of his own.

Roberts was joined by Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy is the famous swing vote, and also a person who once, as a young student, traveled around Europe for a summer with a bottle of whiskey his father had given him, which he only gargled.

Their bottom line was that the Founding Fathers intended America to be a country in which every citizen had the inalienable right to donate, say, $3.6 million every two years.

How do you feel about that, people? On the one hand, this cannot possibly be a helpful step forward. On the other hand, we already live in a country where billionaires can spend endless amounts of cash trying to influence elections with their own private groups. The Koch brothers’ group has spent more than $7 million on ads in North Carolina against U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, and there isn’t even a Republican candidate yet. How much farther could we sink?

“They can now do even worse things,” predicted Fred Wertheimer, the long-suffering leader of Democracy 21, a nonprofit that lobbies for campaign finance reform. There’s a big difference, he claims, between an independent group that has to at least pretend it’s not coordinating its message with a political party, and a rich guy simply “going to a leader in Congress and saying: ‘I’m going to write you a check today for $2.5 million, providing I know what your position is on the following. ...’”

Wertheimer has been working on this issue for a long time. “Let me see if I can add it up; 41 — no! — 43 years,” he said. “I started with Common Cause in 1971, and I was assigned to two issues: campaign finance reform and legislation to end the Vietnam War.”

And, you know, now the Vietnam War is over.

But what about the rest of us? The vast, vast majority of Americans believe there should be some kind of cap on the amount of money candidates can take in and spend. However, they don’t generally want to master the details of the independent expenditure-only committees or the aggregate spending cap. It’s tough enough being a concerned citizen. You’ve got to be able to identify your state senator and have an opinion on the level of pre-K funding in the municipal budget. There’s a limit.

The downside to the decision is pretty clear, unless you are of the opinion that what this country really needs is more power to the plutocrats. But let’s try to be positive for a minute.

Potential upside of opening the door to bigger campaign contributions from rich people:

1) Perhaps Roberts was trying to pile up some right-wing cred so that he can swing left on the Obamacare contraception rule. OK, I’m totally making that one up.

2) The federal government will no longer be “eliminating a person’s right to choose.” This is the spin from Lincoln Brown, a talk radio host who interviewed Shaun McCutcheon, the plaintiff in the suit that the Supreme Court just decided. This would refer to a right to give several million dollars directly to people running for federal office, not a woman’s right to control her reproductive system. But maybe there could be a trend.

The interview, by the way, is up on McCutcheon’s website, along with the announcement that he is writing a book on the way he made legal history, which will be “ready in a few weeks.”

3) More talk about oligarchs!

Watching events in Russia and Ukraine, you can’t help noticing all the stupendously rich oligarchs with their fingers in every political development. It’s a useful word, connoting both awesome power and a group you don’t really want to have around.

In the former Soviet Union, the money elite generally get their power from the politicians. Here, it seems to be the other way around. But the next time casino zillionaire Sheldon Adelson invites the Republican presidential hopefuls to go to Las Vegas and bow before his throne, feel free to say they were just off honoring an oligarch. Apparently, the Founding Fathers would have wanted it that way.

© , New York Times News Service

Gail Collins is a regular columnist for The New York Times.



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