THE BLOG
04/04/2014 04:04 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2014

What's McCutcheon ? The Low-Down for Corruption Newbies

Phil Roeder via Getty Images

It's shocking, disgusting, deplorable -- corruption at its very worst. I'm referring, of course, to this week's Supreme Court ruling on McCutcheon vs. FEC, which strikes down aggregate limits on campaign contributions.

If you're like most people, you don't care much about campaign finance. It's understandable, given that the phrase itself is a gross banalification of an extremely important issue, much like "climate change" or "net neutrality." So here's a quick primer.

Suppose you're in the 0.00038 percent of Americans (about 1,200 people) who donated $123,000 to political campaigns during the 2012 election. That $123,000 was the federally imposed limit on how much you could donate altogether over the course of the campaign cycle -- in other words, the "aggregate limit."

To be clear, you couldn't, and still cannot, donate more than $2,600 to each individual candidate for elected office. But with this week's Supreme Court ruling, you'll never hit an aggregate spending limit on your campaign contributions.

Let's get one thing straight: The money itself isn't the problem. In a perfect world where every American had an equal say in the government decisions that affect our lives, it wouldn't matter who donated the most money.

But we don't live in a perfect world. Far from it. Our members of Congress have developed an insidious dependency upon the coffer fillers who ensure their reelection -- not to mention their post-Congress job security as high-powered lobbyists. (Of the 97 members of Congress who were defeated or voluntarily chose to leave office in the 2012 election cycle, 64 percent now work in the lobbying sector.)

What do these campaign contributors get in return? It's hardly worth asking, given that 75 percent of Americans believe that "campaign contributions buy results in Congress," according to a 2011 survey by the Global Strategy Group. If you're a Koch or an Adelson or a Soros, the money you invest in political campaigns is truly that: an investment, the upfront cost of political influence down the line.

To paraphrase the Mastercard commercial: Knowing the president will answer your phone call? Priceless.

The research backs this up. As Harvard professor and anti-corruption advocate Larry Lessig describes in his seminal book Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress -- and a Plan to Stop It, a Princeton study by Larry Bartels found that "[i]n almost every instance, senators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators' roll call votes."

This corruption can clearly be seen when examining which issues dominate conversations on the Hill. Again, to quote Lessig:

In the spring of 2011, the United States faced many public policy problems. We were in the middle of two wars. The economy was still in the tank.... There was an ongoing battle about health care, and the public debt. There was a continuing fight over taxes. ... So within that mix, what issue would you say was "the most consuming issue in Washington--according to members of Congress, Hill staffers, lobbyists and Treasury officials--" at least as reported by the Huffington Post's Ryan Grim and Zach Carter?

He cites an article by Grim and Carter, who interviewed members of Congress, staffers, lobbyists, and other government officials. Their conclusion is damning: The most consuming issue was, according to Lessig, "[a] bill to limit the amount banks could charge for the use of debit cards: so-called 'swipe fees.'"

It should come as no surprise that the financial sector has spent more on lobbying efforts than almost any other industry in the past 15 years. Only the health sector has invested more in lobbying: $5.87 billion, compared with finance's $5.86 billion.

Will this latest Supreme Court ruling make a noticeable difference in which issues are championed in the halls of D.C.? That remains to be seen. Does it move us even further toward a morally bankrupt republic in which our elected leaders are dependent not upon the people alone, as was clearly intended by our founders, but upon the uber-wealthy few? The answer is an unequivocal yes.

It's admittedly difficult to imagine a solution to this problem. What can we do when the very people who can change the system are the people who benefit from the status quo?

The answer is simple: We can vote them out of office and elect people who commit to representing us. That's the goal of the aptly named Represent.Us, an innovative effort led by bipartisan reform organization United Republic that's building a powerful movement to end corruption in Congress. (Full disclosure: I sit on the board.)

Of course, doing so is going to be extraordinarily difficult. It might even be impossible. But that's no excuse for not trying. When nothing short of our beloved democracy is at stake, we must do everything in our power to save it.

The McCutcheon ruling was a step back. Now is the time for we the people to take two steps forward.

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