America's biggest problem got worse on Tuesday. While debates over critical issues remain stagnant in one of the most ineffective Congress' of all time, the Supreme Court managed to exacerbate the underlying problem in government today: money.
The Supreme Court issued its findings in McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, a case which challenged the $123,200 limit on campaign contributions by an individual in a given election cycle. The court has now removed that aggregate limit on political contributions, effectively giving more influence to the rich and powerful. (Note: While the court did not strike down the limit on contributions to one particular candidate, Clarence Thomas' concurring opinion did mention the idea.)
In his opinion for the court on Tuesday in McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Committee, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: "There is no right in our democracy more basic, than the right to participate in electing our political leaders." Of course, the opportunity to vote is a critical centerpiece of democracy but rather than ensuring a system of one citizen, one vote, the United States continues to move closer to a system of one dollar, one vote.
The timing of the decision does not come without irony.
Over the weekend, the perils of money in politics came front and center. Republican Presidential hopefuls from Chris Christie to Scott Walker to John Kasich descended upon Las Vegas and the Republican Jewish Committee (RJC) annual meeting to accomplish one task: convince billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to support what many believe to be eventual bids for president. Mr. Adelson spent nearly $150 million supporting Republican candidates in 2012 and has vowed to spend more if necessary.
All that money equals power -- just ask Chris Christie. The embattled New Jersey governor gave a speech to the RJC in which he referred to the West Bank as the "Occupied Territories." Despite being rooted in fact (as Israel maintains a military presence in the West Bank), this quip did not sit well with the right-wing Sheldon Adelson and other influential donors, whose number one political goal is defending Israel. Governor Christie was forced to apologize and take back his remarks in a face-to-face meeting. Adelson's money not only permits him to have an outsized political voice, but it allows him to now control the voice of candidates as well.
This is not how democracy functions.
As millennials preparing to enter a work force where jobs are both low paid and scarce with a lingering burden of student loan debt, there is a strong likelihood that we will not have the same prosperity as prior generations. But it remains critical that we have our interests recognized by those who represent us.
Unfortunately money, often in the name of special interest groups, drives the policy debate in Washington. The Affordable Care Act has already helped 7.1 million Americans sign up for healthcare, but it is the corporate insurance companies who helped write the law that are laughing all the way to the bank. According to USA Today, 57 of the companies listed on the S&P 500, paid effective tax rates of zero percent or less. Of course, the average citizen cannot forgo his or her tax burden.
Occasional murmurs about campaign finance and other "money-centric" reforms descend from Capitol Hill. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wrote an blog for The Huffington Post in January 2012 on this very issue and Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) proposed a constitutional amendment regarding the issue in 2013. Many ideas get proposed, but without sustained public advocacy, many ideas also fade.
The best cure millenials can offer for the ailing state of American politics is to be active. Follow the issues, communicate with your representatives, and vote for those who truly represent you.
There are a lot of important issues to be tackled -- income inequality, education reform, infrastructure improvements, etc. -- but until money gets taken out of the political arena, national priorities will continue to get pushed to the wayside. It's elephant in the room: It all comes down to money.