The Supreme Court's ruling that landed the Justices a public tongue-lashing by President Barack Obama during his State of the Union Address on Jan. 27, today has millions of tongues wagging about presumed wide open floodgates through which waves of corporate money will wash over Washington.
Yet, no one is talking about the elephant that stood in the chamber during Obama's chastisement of the Court. That pachyderm represented both parties
The national outrage over the Court's 5-4 decision expanding the role of corporations in electoral campaigns presented itself in Obama's speech:
"With all due deference to separation of powers, last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections."
The rumbling that moved the crowd but failed to sway a stalwart Court, was the age-old elephant in the room adjusting in his permanently affixed seat.
The fear fueling the angst behind Obama's words stems from knowing that money does buy influence in Washington. The more money that can be brought to the table, the more influence can be bought. Bring enough cash and you can purchase political decisions, legislation and even entire institutions.
The knee-jerk reaction is to close the floodgate enough to stem the tide of campaign contributions and corporate involvement in elections. The Court's interpretation of the law affords corporations the legal right to freely flow funds through the campaign processes. If influence is the reward, that's not the Court's fault ... or problem. That problem persisted prior to the Court's ruling on Jan. 21.
And that's where the elephant gets a little nervous that he may actually be noticed.
The key to the argument is whether money actually buys influence, which is denied daily by Democrats and Republicans, despite lobbyists spending millions for a moment of time alone over breakfast, lunch or dinner.
President Obama set the stage for conflict when he said, "Now, the House has already passed financial reform with many of these changes. And the lobbyists are trying to kill it."
Either Obama is offering the country a conspiracy theory or he's pointing at the elephant in the room. That rumbling sound affirms his accusation.
Money does indeed buy influence in Washington. And those lobbyists work for someone. My guess is that it's not my barber or the locally-owned coop. Obama declared them the enemy within ... corporate-funded terrorists seeking to kill legislation. It's not polite to call them by name nor the companies that sent them. They are known collectively as "lobbyists" or perhaps by their lesser known moniker, American Al Qaida (Base of Operations).
Still, identifying lobbyists points to only one-half of the problem. These highly-paid legislative assassins target Washington. Who is "Washington?"
"Washington" is a euphemism referring to 537 specific people: the 435 members of the House of Representatives, 100 members of the Senate and the president and vice president. Anyone else who lands on a lobbyist's list is merely an ala carte item necessary to be purchased in order to get to the main menu
The Justices sat relatively quiet while receiving a humiliating shellacking by the president in direct response to the Court's capitulation to corporations in electoral campaigns. But, the reality is the peoples' representatives were already flooded by funds from financial institutions and other corporations before the Court cleared the way for a torrential downpour. Obama expressed frustration over his fight to sway ideological and political beliefs of members of Congress, which he apparently perceives is impeded by the current of cash flowing through the chamber. And when he pointed it out in the name of "lobbyists," the stirring in the room shook the foundation.
The Court's decision didn't change anything in Washington. But it did bring attention to a problem that has long existed. The small stream of corporate-funded investments in Washington has yielded high results. It has bought campaigns, pushed and punished politicians, raised up and ruined presidents, moved bills through Congress and purchased legislation. Through it all, corporate investments through persistent efforts of persuasive lobbyists, contributions to new candidates and incumbents and funds allocated to political affiliates have gained and retained the trust of the American people in flawed and frayed institutions of power.
Today, you can't toss a wadded-up dollar bill into Congress without hitting someone related to Goldman Sachs or one of the other fingers in a handful of corporations whose contributions can be found in the coffers of political leaders on both sides of the aisle. If money buys influence, then the two branches of government most closely connected to the American people have long been purchased. Any cursory investigation into the ties between media, political institutions and corporations will reveal cozy relationships and a list of common names within overlapping circles of influence and power. The angst over potential increases in the trafficking of cash along the highway of influence in Washington ignores the long-established highway and its towering toll booths.
The Court didn't create the high-stakes game of influence nor determine the rules of access. It merely opened the door for competition. That catalyst caused a clamor. Naturally, those companies already holding a position on the political chessboard do not wish to see more pawns cluttering the avenues toward political influence and control of institutions.
The fear, however, isn't in whether more millions will move monuments in Washington. It is the American people who hold the king's position on the chessboard. Every move in Washington is made with the end result of capturing the king. The presidency, with its massive bully pulpit and executive privileges, represents a most powerful queen. Her influence over the public can wield enormous power. Still, every position on the chessboard is valuable and serves a purpose in the power structure, which is geared toward influencing the electorate. The game is primarily played in Washington, but the ultimate focus is on gaining controlling influence over the American voters.
The Court's ruling expanded the game. No longer can age-old elected leaders protect the positions of their corporate masters when the channels have been opened to lobby directly to the masses. And given the consumer culture we've become over the past several generations, buying influence in America is quickly becoming as easy as creating a viral video.
With an ocean of opportunity to fund funny films and distorted bits of inconvenient truths, corporations and foreign entities can now spend as much as they wish to get their messages across to an ill-informed, American-Idolized, disinterested and disenchanted electorate.
Entertain us for a moment or two and we'll give you our attention. Make us laugh and we'll pass around your frivolity to our friends. Show us awe-inspiring animation or drama and we'll sit for hours staring. Give us a message while you've captured our gaze and you'll earn our trust. Present that trust on a political landscape and you'll exploit our ignorance and garner our support. Gain our support and you'll move political mountains at home and bomb them abroad.
America is up for sale. But don't blame the Supreme Court. The Justices weren't guilty of placing the home of the brave on the auction block when they opened the corporate floodgate for a wave of new competitors seeking to stake a claim. They only brought attention to the huge sign already on the landscape.