Every once in a while, David Brooks writes a column in The New York Times that makes one just cringe. That was the case with his “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” treatment last week of the impact of Citizens United on our politics. By defining the impact narrowly—does either party gain from the Supreme Court ruling and the new Wild West of campaign financing?—and by cherry-picking the research on campaign finance, Brooks comes up with a benign conclusion: Citizens United will actually reduce the influence of money in elections, and, I quote, “The upshot is that we should all relax about campaign spending.” Without mentioning his good friend’s name, E.J. Dionne destroyed that case in his own Washington Post column. But a broader critique is necessary. First, Citizens United—and its progeny, SpeechNow and McCutcheon—are not really about whether Republicans get a leg up on election outcomes. They are about a new regime of campaign spending that dramatically enhances corruption in politics and government by forcing lawmakers to spend more and more of their precious time making fundraising calls, raising money for their own campaigns and their parties, and getting insurance against a last-minute blitz of “independent” spending that trashes them when they have no time to raise money to defend themselves. It also gives added traction to extreme groups threatening lawmakers with primary devastation unless they toe the ideological line.
I have told this story before, but it bears repeating. Many legislators have had an experience something like this: A lobbyist visits and says, “I am working with Americans for a Better America. They have more money than God. $10 million in the last two weeks of a campaign to trash somebody’s reputation would be nothing to them. They really, really want this amendment. I don’t know what they would do if someone opposed them, but …” The result will be more amendments, or more amendments blocked, without the money being spent and without anyone even knowing what is going on. And every time the money is spent, and someone loses, the lesson will not be lost on those still in office.
If judges have to raise millions for reelection campaigns, who will contribute? Of course, those who practice in front of the judges will.
At the same time, the desperation to raise money means lawmakers pandering to big donors or shaking them down—trading access for favors, or threatening retribution. And it means more vicious ads, done by anonymous groups, which only enhance the corrosive cynicism voters have toward all politicians. And it means more sham independence and blockage of disclosure, without any enforcement of existing laws by the outrageously lawless Federal Election Commission, led by Caroline Hunter and Lee Goodman. And we should relax?