By James Kwak
I accidentally glanced at the link to David Brooks’s recent column and—oh my god, is it stupid. You may want to stop reading right here to avoid being exposed to it.
Basically, Brooks says that the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon is pro-democratic because it strengthens political parties relative to “donors and super PACs.” In case you weren’t aware, McCutcheon eliminates the aggregate limits on direct contributions to candidates, parties, and PACs (not super PACs–no such limits exist) but the individual contribution limits still stand—so now you can max out to more candidates and parties than you could before.
First of all, let’s be clear about the practical impact here. In the 2012 cycle, 644 people hit the aggregate limits, and they donated $93 million (to entities governed by aggregate limits). That’s nothing. Sheldon Adelson alone contributed close to $150 million. And the limits on what you can donate to either party’s national committee, or either party’s Senate committee or House committee, still stand.
So basically we’re talking about those very few people who, when asked to contribute to (say) the DCCC, said, “Sorry, I’m maxed out.” At the margin, now some of those people can write the check to the DCCC rather than to some super PAC—although they can also write the check to some candidate, or that candidate’s PAC, and that money isn’t under party control.
In Brooks’s world, this is good because weaker parties make it harder for challengers to unseat incumbents. Huh? Has he seen what is going on over in Republican land? The rise of super PACs is a major reason why extreme right wing candidates, funded by the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, can threaten far right candidates preferred by the Republican Party.
The big money is in super PACs and 501(c)(4)s not because the super-donors wanted to give money to the parties but couldn’t. It’s there because the super-donors like it that way. They like the anonymity of giving to a 501(c)(4). They like the ability to dictate what a super PAC does, rather than having to compete with other people trying to influence a national party.
Brooks also thinks that the current emphasis on fundraising is a consequence of weak parties: “With the parties weakened, lawmakers have to do many campaign tasks on their own. They have to do their own fundraising and their own kissing up to special interests.”
Correlation, causality. The reason candidates have to raise more money is that they need more money. The reason they need more money is that there is a lot more money in politics. The reasons there is a lot more money is politics are (a) rich people have vastly more money than they did a few decades ago and (b) campaign finance laws now allow those rich people to spend a lot more money on politics. That’s why Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both spent time not just soliciting checks made out to their campaigns, but also appearing at events for their “uncoordinated” coordinated super PACs.
McCutcheon isn’t quite the end of the world, because its immediate practical impact is not as big as that of Citizens United and SpeechNow.org. It is significant as a precedent, since it shows that a majority of the Court is perilously close to tossing out contribution limits altogether, going further down the Citizens United rabbit hole in which corruption doesn’t exist. If justices think that a multi-million-dollar donation to a politician’s
uncoordinated super PAC isn’t corruption or the appearance of corruption, then there’s no amount of stupidity they aren’t capable of.