DAN THOMASSON: Campaign limits should remain intact
October 11, 2013 10:00 AM

The Supreme Court is contemplating removing the limit on individual campaign contributions at the federal level. If the panel’s earlier decision to lift the ban on corporate giving is any indication, the odds aren’t bad that’s what will happen.

Right now, individuals are limited to giving a total of $123,000 in any two-year election cycle. That already seems like a lot. For conservative Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, who with the Republican National Committee brought the lawsuit, it isn’t nearly enough and tramples on his constitutional right to free speech.

But opponents contend that without some restraint on total contributions, the amount of personal giving by one individual could rise to $3.7 million. Anyone who provides a single candidate, or even a small group of them, with that much money is aiming to buy more than just good government. Obviously, money buys access and access is power.

While the average American may get a polite response from an assistant when writing to a representative of Congress about a pressing problem, someone donating this much money merely picks up the phone or walks through the lawmaker’s office door as though he or she owns the place — a reality.

In a brief to the court, U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. said: “A system in which an individual can provide millions of dollars — potentially in response to direct solicitations from the president and members of Congress — to finance parties and their candidates would substantially replicate the Watergate era and soft money systems that resulted in well-documented instances of corruption and apparent corruption.”

And Fred Wertheimer, who first with Common Cause and then with Democracy 21 has waged a good fight for years to cut the influence of money on politics, predicted in a statement to The Washington Post that the court might set the stage for eliminating any restraints on contributions.

That would “take us back to the 1870s and the era of robber barons,” Wertheimer said. Obviously, he based that estimate on the fact that the court’s conservative wing — which gave us the 2010 Citizens United decision eliminating the barrier to corporate giving — is still intact.

Those who have followed the cable TV series “Hell on Wheels” and its accurate portrayal of the Credit Mobilier scandal during the building of the transcontinental railroad in the late 1860s and ’70s should have some idea about the corrupting impact of money on this nation.

Some 66 lawmakers, senators and House members were paid handsomely to do the bidding of those assigned to build the Union Pacific Railroad from the Missouri River west to the ocean. The scandal poisoned the congressional well and almost brought down the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.

Its repercussions lasted for decades, only outdone by the Teapot Dome scandal in the early 1920s.

Some years ago, I walked into a breakfast room early one morning where former President Richard Nixon was holding forth with five of the biggest players in the industrial and corporate and political world. I felt a bit frozen in the days when each of the men had managed to provide huge amounts of money not only to Republicans but wisely, it turned out, to Democratic presidential candidates. My word, they’re still around, I thought. One of them had provided the initial money to Nixon’s re-election campaign, which ended up supporting Watergate activities.

The men were seated at one end of a table and no one else was in the room. Nixon nodded in my direction as I sat down at the opposite end.

“Whatever you hear stays here. Those are the rules, as I’m sure you know,” he said. I didn’t bother to acknowledge it.

At a time when the election process is already tainted by the amount of money spent for just putting a president in the White House — several billions total for both candidates — the country can ill afford to increase that amount.

Already, too many powerful special interests call the tune that our politicians dance to.

Most major issues aren’t controlled by the people or for the people but by political packs and individuals who may not always represent what’s best for us.

“The mob probably ought not control the presidency.” — Charlie “Lucky” Luciano

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