"Do or Do not. There is no try."

“Justice Roberts Defends The Embattled Rich In McCutcheon”: With Laundered Contributions, You Can Now Buy Off Whole Committees

Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Supreme Court struck down aggregate limits on campaign donations, offers a novel twist in the conservative contemplation of what Nazis have to do with the way the rich are viewed in America. In January, Tom Perkins, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, worried about a progressive Kristallnacht; Kenneth Langone, the founder of Home Depot, said, of economic populism, “If you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.” Roberts, to his credit, avoided claiming the mantle of Hitler’s victims for wealthy campaign donors. He suggests, though, that the rich are, likewise, outcasts: “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects,” he writes:

If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades—despite the profound offense such spectacles cause—it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.

So the problem is that even Nazis are treated better than rich people—less constrained by public anger in their ability to speak out. Or pick your analogy: when thinking about people who want to donate large sums of money to candidates, should we compare their position to that of the despised and defeated, like the Nazis in Skokie, Illinois, in the nineteen-seventies, or of scorned dissidents, like flag-burners, trying to get their voice heard with their lonely donations?

As in Roberts’s opinion in Shelby v. Holder, in which the Court overturned parts of the Voting Rights Act last year, the people we think of as having the power are, in fact, embattled, the victims of schemes, driven by popular opinion, meant to “restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others,” as Roberts put it. “The whole point of the First Amendment is to afford individuals protection against such infringements,” he wrote, adding:

No matter how desirable it may seem, it is not an acceptable governmental objective to “level the playing field,” or to “level electoral opportunities,” or to “equaliz[e] the financial resources of candidates.”

There is, apparently, a fine line between efforts to keep our political system from being for sale and a social experiment in levelling.

Roberts’s opinion left intact limits on how much a person can donate to a single candidate or party committee, but it took away the limit on how much money in total a person can give directly to candidates. Until this case, the totals were $48,600 to individuals and $74,600 to committees per election cycle. (Shaun McCutcheon, the plaintiff, said he wanted to keep giving directly to Republicans after he’d reached his limits; the Republican National Committee joined him in the case, saying it would be happy to take his money.) Roberts recognized, as the Court long has, that the government has an interest in preventing corruption which allows it to limit the size of a check that one person can hand one candidate. Earlier decisions allowed the aggregate limits in order to prevent donors from using multiple contributions to get around the cap, by giving to numerous committees that might pass the money around and get it to the candidate anyway. Stephen Breyer’s dissent—he was joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan—lays out a number of quite practical ways this could happen, but Roberts dismisses those arguments as silly.

“It is hard to believe that a rational actor would engage in such machinations,” Roberts writes, after examining how a person could donate to a hundred PACs to get money to a hypothetical candidate named Smith. He may simply be lacking in imagination here: the immediate effect of McCutcheon is likely to be the development of structures and vehicles for effectively laundering contributions through many small channels, and the emergence of specialists who know how to set these things up. Roberts might think that the complexity—the potential paperwork—is a guarantor against corruption, but he has too little faith. We’ve got the technology to get it done.

Roberts’s other argument is a little sad: “That same donor, meanwhile, could have spent unlimited funds on independent expenditures on behalf of Smith.” In other words, aggregate limits wouldn’t foster corruption, because using money to influence a campaign is much easier with the sort of independent expenditures that Citizens United makes possible.

Citizens United or no, McCutcheon will set up a large-scale experiment in how money is used and passed around, with new kinds of mega-bundling, and how coördinated donations either impose uniformity on a party’s far-flung candidates or help to solidify regional or ideological blocs. It may be a different kind of leveller than Roberts imagines; it could also be a way to financially fuel intra-party civil wars. And that is quite separate from the new potential for influence peddling. Instead of targeting a single Congressman, you can try to buy off a whole committee.

But then Roberts relies on a very narrow measure of corruption: “Ingratiation and access … are not corruption,” he writes, quoting Citizens United. (There are a number of citations of Citizens United in this decision.) The argument of McCutcheon, in effect, is that a political party itself cannot, by definition, be corrupted: “There is a clear, administrable line between money beyond the base limits funneled in an identifiable way to a candidate—for which the candidate feels obligated—and money within the base limits given widely to a candidate’s party—for which the candidate, like all other members of the party, feels grateful.” The gratitude may only be for a place of safety where donors, assailed by the popular opinion of bitter, poorer people, can find a little bit of solace.


By: Amy Davidson, The New Yorker, April 2, 2014

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, John Roberts, McCutcheon v FEC | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Forgetting What Religion Is About”: When Did ‘Dependence’ Become A Dirty Word?

Too many Americans—including Christians—are afraid that helping the poor will create ‘dependency.’ They’re forgetting that’s what religion is all about.

Not long ago, I preached a Lenten sermon in which I made a lone reference to food stamps as being one of the ways we “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Judging from the reactions of a few congregants, you might have thought it was all I preached about. They went out of their way to tell me how such programs “breed” complacency, laziness, and—wait for it—dependency.

It reminded me of Rep. Paul Ryan, who’s always carrying on about America’s “culture of dependency,” and just realized a major budget proposal that would slash food stamps and other government measures that relieve the misery of the poorest Americans.

When did “dependence” become such a dirty word? We list our children on our income tax forms as “dependents” without stigmatizing them by such a designation. So why does “dependent” become an accusation when applied to other people’s children when they are in need of food stamp (SNAP) assistance, a free-school-lunch program, or housing assistance to rescue them from being homeless? Why is it wrong for someone blind, disabled, or elderly and frail to be “dependent” upon the society in which he or she lives for the basic necessities, when it is impossible for that person to provide for themselves?

And besides, it’s far from clear that a “culture of dependency” is what America has—in fact, we have something like the opposite. Independence may well be the modern day Golden Calf to which far too many of us bow down and worship. Independence is bound up in our national identity, both personal and corporate. After all, next to our Constitution, it is the Declaration of Independence to which we most often appeal. The rugged individualism which in many ways helped make our nation what it is may also be what is causing us to lose our sense of the common good.

The establishment of a social safety net is the most profoundly religious action a government can take. An underlying principle of the Judeo-Christian faith—indeed of most faith communities—is that God will judge humankind by the way we care for the most vulnerable in our midst. Think of all the people in the world we generally revere: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Clara Barton, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day, Albert Schweitzer, Dag Hammarskjold, Mother Teresa. All of them, in one way or another, reached out to the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized, seeking to ease their pain and help bear their burdens.

When a government sets out to seek the common good, it realizes that there will be some among us who are less able to meet all their needs, chief among them housing, food and safety. And it’s not just a few of us who find ourselves in need at some point: as Mark Rank wrote on the New York Times’ Opinionator, “nearly 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience at least one year below the official poverty line during that period ($23,492 for a family of four), and 54 percent will spend a year in poverty or near poverty (below 150 percent of the poverty line).”

Are there undeserving, even fraudulent people receiving welfare/food/housing assistance? Undoubtedly. But as a citizen of this great nation, I am willing to fund the undeserving few who slip by unnoticed and game the system, in order to provide for the many who are truly in need. Many of our national and state legislators seem to want to use the excuse of the undeserving few to gut the social safety net altogether, and by so doing, punish the many who are in real need.

In fact, most of the people who avail themselves of the government’s (in other words, our) social safety net are indeed dependent. Some of them will remain so: children (45 percent), the disabled, and the elderly (20 percent). Many more will remain so until we get serious about offering them the kind of assistance which might lift them out of poverty, like raising the minimum wage.

In 2012, 47 percent of people who received food stamp assistance were in families where at least one person was working. These so-called “working poor” are not lying around in Paul Ryan’s imagined hammock of ease, living off others’ hard work and generally having a grand time of it. They are working one or more jobs, and because of part-time work or low wages and extreme needs, are still not able to provide adequate food and shelter for themselves and their families. Politicians who claim to be “helping” poor people by depriving them of aid are either ignorant or cruel.

For Christians are called to care for our neighbors. Telling the Good Samaritan story, Jesus teaches that all people are our neighbors. And as for a few “getting away with murder,” Jesus reminds his followers that it rains on the just and the unjust alike, and that God will sort it all out in the end. Jews, Muslims, Christians, and followers of nearly every religion believe in helping those in need. So do most humanists and atheists. We are called to respect the dignity of every human being. And yet, we witness professed Christians like Paul Ryan putting forward budgets that would eviscerate our common safety net.

It’s time religious people stood up and laid claim to their desire and responsibility to care for the poor. It’s time to withdraw the stigma and condemnation from those who by necessity must be “dependent” on the rest of us. It should be our joy to serve them.


By: V. Gene Robinson, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC, and the Retired IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire; Published in The Daily Beast, April 4, 2014

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Poor and Low Income, Poverty, Religion | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Not Much Of A Deal”: The Trouble With The Minimum-Wage “Compromise”

Senate Democrats had originally planned to move forward this week on legislation to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10, but it was delayed in part so the chamber could tackle extended unemployment benefits, which may pass later today.

The delay, however, also carried an unintended consequence: the prospect of a “compromise” on the issue, spearheaded by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

Democratic leaders so far are sticking to the $10.10-an-hour wage they’re proposing, while many Republicans, including more moderate lawmakers, say they are likely to filibuster the bill.

But the moderate Maine Republican says she’s leading a bipartisan group of senators hoping to strike a deal.

Collins hasn’t released the details of her proposal, which makes sense given that the talks are still ongoing, but Roll Call’s piece suggests she’s open to a minimum-wage increase, so long as it’s smaller. By some accounts, the Maine Republican is eyeing a $9/hour minimum wage, up from the current $7.25/hour, which would be phased in slowly over three years.

But Collins also hopes to trade this modest minimum-wage increase for a partial rollback of the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act and some small business tax cuts.

The senator is calling her plan “a work in progress.”

One might also call it “something that won’t happen.”

Greg Sargent had a good piece on this yesterday, noting that Dems don’t seem to have much of an incentive to drop their target minimum-wage threshold.

For one thing, Democratic aides point out, the idea of such a compromise may be fanciful. Even if it were possible to win over a few Republicans for a lower raise, you’d probably risk losing at least a few Democrats on the left, putting 60 out of reach (Republicans would still filibuster the proposal).

Indeed, the office of Senator Tom Harkin – the chief proponent of a hike to $10.10 – tells me he’ll oppose any hike short of that…. Labor is already putting Dems on notice that supporting a smaller hike is unacceptable.

Even the balance of the so-called “compromise” is off. As Collins sees it, Republicans would get quite a bit in exchange for Democrats making important concessions on their popular, election-year idea.

That’s not much of a “deal.”

Complicating matters, even if Dems went along with Collins’ offer, there’s no reason to believe House Republicans would accept any proposal to increase the minimum wage by any amount.

It sets Senate Democrats up with a choice: fight for the $10.10 minimum-wage increase they want (and watch Senate Republicans kill it) or pursue a $9 minimum-wage increase they don’t want (and watch House Republicans kill it).

Don’t be too surprised if the party sees this as an easy call.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 3, 2014

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Congress, Minimum Wage | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“In Florida, Anything Can Happen”: Vampires, RINOs And Things That Go Bump In The Night

From the state that gave us Katherine Harris and Mark Foley came news this week that a vampire is running for Congress.

This particular bloodsucker — actually, he does role-playing as a vampire after dark — is trying to defeat Rep. Ted Yoho in a Republican primary in central Florida. The fanged contender believes Yoho — a tea party conservative — is a liberal who has “embarrassed” his constituents.

Speaking of embarrassing, the SaintPetersBlog Web site reported that this challenger, 35-year-old attorney Jake Rush, has moonlighted as a participant in a Gothic troupe engaged in “night-to-night struggles ‘against their own bestial natures.’ ” Rush, a former sheriff’s deputy, issued a news release.

“I’ve been blessed with a vivid imagination from playing George Washington in elementary school to dressing up as a super hero last Halloween for trick-or-treaters,” Rush’s statement said, adding that he also is a “practicing Christian” who “played Jesus” in a church play.

Running for office in the Sunshine State poses some unique problems for vampires, not least their difficulty of campaigning in daylight hours. Yoho will probably keep his seat, particularly if he remembers to wear garlic.

But the Rush candidacy reminds us of an important truism in politics: In Florida, anything can happen.

For more evidence of this, consider what is happening next weekend on Amelia Island, not far from where Jake Rush and the other undead play. There, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy will speak at a fundraiser for Republican moderates. In today’s Republican Party, moderates are less popular than vampires, so it is extraordinary that these two young leaders, who have assiduously courted the tea party the past five years, are willing to associate themselves with those the tea partiers deride as RINOs, Republicans in Name Only.

“It’s great news,” says Steve LaTourette, who runs the Republican Main Street Partnership and is a board member of its offshoot political action committee, which is hosting the gathering at the Ritz-Carlton. “The fact that they want to come is very encouraging as a centrist Republican. . . . That they at least want to break bread with us I give them credit for, because they’re certainly getting attacked for it.”

That they are, in the blogosphere, on talk radio and even in fundraising pitches from tea party candidates. “Next weekend, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and 25 other members of Congress are flying to Amelia Island to collaborate with a group dedicated to defeating conservatives in Congress,” conservative pundit Erick Erickson harrumphed.

Actually, House Speaker Boehner has addressed the group before but will be on foreign travel this time. More significant is the first-ever attendance of Cantor, who has been seen as a potential threat to Boehner from the right.

The presence of Cantor and McCarthy shows their increased confidence in defying the purity demands of organizations such as the Club for Growth, Heritage Action and FreedomWorks. You can’t get much more defiant than siding with LaTourette, who, in a Post op-ed in September, likened 30 to 40 conservative Republicans in the House to trained monkeys, writing that “the monkeys are running the zoo.”

LaTourette, a former (moderate) Republican congressman, thinks it’s a sign of things to come. He noted that of the 10 Republican House members targeted for primaries by the Club for Growth’s “” project, nine belong to his organization. “We’re not going to lose anything,” LaTourette predicted. He noted that conservative groups have gone from saying “they’re going to kick our ass” to saying “we’re going to win one.”

It’ll be a long time before the 52 House Republican members of the Main Street group gain any real power, but from Florida anything seems possible. Florida has given us everything from former representative Allen West, the most militant of conservatives, to Rep. Alan Grayson, the most strident of liberals. Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor who lost a Senate bid as a Republican and then as an independent, is running for governor again — as a Democrat — and just might win.

Florida, too, gave us Republican Rep. Trey Radel, who recently resigned after a cocaine arrest, and Democratic Rep. Tim Mahoney, who succeeded Foley after the congressional-page scandal by promising to restore family values; he lost the seat after it was reported that he paid a staffer $121,000 to keep their affair quiet.

Now Florida is giving us vampires, RINOs and other things that go bump in the night. It is fun to believe they might be real.


By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 4, 2014

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, Florida, Tea Party | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Politics Of Losing Sorely”: How McCutcheon, Citizens United And Voting Restrictions Are Hurting Our Democracy

So let’s get right down to it: when you really think about it, what makes America different from other countries? Yes, there are lots of good answers, but if you ask me, it has something to do with this: one person, one vote.

It’s a pretty simple phrase, but in it lies the promise that no matter who you are, or where you come from, when the rubber hits the road your voice is worth just as much as anyone else’s. You have a say. And no one else’s say is more important than yours.

But for that to work, every citizen in good standing has to have a meaningful opportunity to participate in the process. And the question before us today is: Is that getting easier or harder, and which option is more consistent with our concept of American democracy?

Take a look at cases like Citizens United and, this week, McCutcheon, for example. They do one thing: give the very wealthy more influence over elections in the United States. It’s like saying: instead of an electoral process where everyone’s voice is given the same weight, some people, by virtue of their wealth, are going to get megaphones. Yes, that’s been true, in one way or another, for years, but in its recent rulings the Supreme Court’s been busy making those megaphones even louder.

Something similar is happening on the state level, if only from a different direction. You can see it in the tougher voter ID requirements, the diminution of early voting, law after law aimed at making it harder for some people to vote – in this case, people who just happen to be more likely to vote Democratic. The end result is an electorate with an artificially higher concentration of conservative voters. Terrific for Republicans. Less good for democracy.

Take the federal and state efforts together and it’s a kind of a pincer movement aimed at producing a “representative” government that’s actually a lot more conservative than its constituents, a representative government that’s not really all that, you know, representative.

This is what happens when one segment of the population says: We’ve been losing too much and we’re sick of it. But instead of retooling our arguments to better match where the American electorate is, or trusting in the traditional American way of persuading a skeptical audience, we’re instead going to lift the hood on the democratic process itself and see if we can change the system so that outcomes we prefer become more likely – not because they are more representative of the American people but because we’ve figured out how to get a few more of our fingers on the electoral scale.

But here’s the thing: being a good loser is, actually, an essential part of the American system. Every few years, we expect our politics to spit out a government that roughly reflects the priorities and interests of a majority of its citizens, because we all get to participate in the process equally. We may not like what that government looks like, but we don’t go storming across the Rubicon, angry pitchforks in hand because the inclusiveness of the process gives it a kind of legitimacy that you don’t find in a lot of other places. We live with it because we know it basically reflects the views of our peers (as opposed to: some remote cabal) and because we’ll have a meaningful opportunity to change it next time around.

And the fact of the matter is: its good for the process when someone loses on the merits. Because losing fair and square encourages the loser to stop regurgitating the same losing arguments over and over again, and instead to come up with something better. Isn’t that what we want the competition of ideas that plays out in every election to produce? Or are we instead going to stand by and let the sorest of the losers say: If I can’t win the game as its supposed to be played I’m going to change the game, and I don’t much care if doing so undermines one of the very things that makes America a beacon of liberty in an increasingly Putinized world.

Of course, it isn’t entirely up to us, but that’s what happens when the Supreme Court steps in. For me, that only increases the urgency of the following question: is there a point at which changing the nature of electoral inputs, either by giving some outsized influence over the process or making it harder for others to participate at all, gets so out of whack that it begins to undermine the legitimacy of electoral outcomes? If you really love America qua America, you know that’s a place we should never be.

No we’re not there yet.

But it’s sure not getting any easier.


By: Anson Kaye, U. S. News and World Report, April 4, 2014

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Electoral Process, SCOTUS | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

%d bloggers like this: