Court of public opinion heard on campaign cash

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As the Supreme Court justices were hearing oral arguments on the biggest campaign finance case of the term Tuesday, advocates on both sides were making their views known outside the court’s front door.

To those gathered outside the Supreme Court, the case of McCutcheon v. FEC targeting government limits on individual campaigns was either a chance to strike a blow at free speech restrictions or a last chance to curb the power of money in American politics.

David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, argued the donation limits help incumbents and hurt funding for challengers during elections.

“I think the current scheme actually may help keep corruption in, because the way to get rid of corruption is to get rid of the people who are corrupt,” he said. “And if you can’t give to enough challengers to get rid of the corrupt people, that’s going to help them stay in office.”

But others said the court had a chance to uphold laws that constrain the wealthiest 1 percent of the American population and their ability to dictate elections.

Said Matthew Segal, president and co-founder of Ourtime.org, put it, “Ninety-three percent of the time the candidate who raises the most money wins an election. … I was never taught that Abraham Lincoln said, ‘Of the wealthy, by the wealthy, for the wealthy.’”

Justin Levitt, an associate professor of law at Loyola Law School, said, “I don’t see many donors who unthinkingly give hundreds of thousands of dollars to particular candidates without looking into other challengers and candidates they might prefer,” he said.

Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent who is one of the Senate’s most liberal members, noted the court was hearing the case even as huge sums of money were pouring into the political campaign to stop President Obama’s new health care law. Mr. Sanders contended that money — and the fear it may be used against them in their next campaign — is a major factor in the tough stand Republicans have taken in the current showdown over the federal government shutdown.

“We are living in a society where a handful of people with incredible sums of money, folks like the Koch brothers, and others, are undermining what this democracy is supposed to be about,” Mr. Sanders said.

While the crowd toted signs proclaiming “With Liberty and Justice for Sale” and “Money out, Voters in,” some of the most compelling comments came from a Mr. Ernest Vanderbribes, a satirical character mocking big campaign spenders.

“A donation is not a bribe anymore than a gumball machine is bribed by the quarter,” he said. “It’s a perfectly fair transaction. I insert a donation here, I give a super-PAC donation there, and your congresspeople spit out sweet, sweet subsidies. … There is nothing wrong with putting a few million quarters into the gumball machine of democracy.”

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