Supreme Court Ruling Lets Politics Go Up for Sale

Deregulation of campaign finance gives too much power to politicians with wealthy supporters.

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Multimillion dollar campaign donor Sheldon Adelson.

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The debate over campaign finance isn't likely to end soon, despite the Supreme Court's recent decision striking down a Montana law that banned corporate money in elections. Campaign finance regulation proponent Frank Askin, general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union and author of Defending Rights: A Life in Law and Politics, spoke recently with U.S. News about the campaign finance system and why he thinks unregulated donations are putting too much power in the hands of those with deep pockets. Excerpts:

What are the national implications of the ruling?

The national implications are that rich people are going to buy our elections. This is a blow to democratic governance. It means that politics are going to be up for sale. It allows billionaires to try to buy the political process.

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on Super PACs.]

How has spending changed the behavior of elected officials?

That's too nuanced to say, but certainly it has a substantial influence. Elected officials are looking over their shoulder to see who is going to come after them. It's certainly relevant in the Republican Party primaries when the incumbents are looking over their shoulders at Tea Party candidates who are backed by the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson, and they are very careful about what they do.

Why has campaign spending become so important?

It has become important because rich people want to become a part of the process. They want to do away with some of the healthcare requirements. Businesses all over the place want to do away with regulation of business. The banks and finance companies are for deregulation, they don't want government regulation. The more they spend, the more chance they have, they think, of getting their way and of getting policies that are more to their liking.

Should campaign financing be regulated?

Of course it should be regulated. The problem is we have five members of the Supreme Court who are hellbent on deregulating it. Next thing, they're probably going to do away with all regulation. It'll be back to the bad old days of [President Richard] Nixon and Watergate.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Is a system that allows limitless campaign financing sustainable?

I don't think it's sustainable from a democratic point of view. It's going to allow the one tenth of 1 percent to rule the country. They're going to buy up elections and they're going to buy up policy. Politicians are supposed to be the most ungrateful people in the world. They're supposed to spit in the eye of their benefactors. Well, they don't spit in the eye of their benefactors, they listen to their benefactors, and sometimes they often bow to the wishes of their benefactors.

How will campaign finance reformers respond to the ruling?

It's not easy. There are some people who are pushing for a constitutional amendment. That's very tricky. First, it's very difficult to amend the Constitution—it's a long, slow, tedious process, not likely to succeed, not anytime soon. Even when it does succeed, then you get judicial interpretations of the amendment and it may turn out to even backfire.

Will this have any effect on the upcoming presidential election?

This is going to be the story of the election. It may not be as significant in the presidential election because [President Barack] Obama can raise a lot of money. He won't raise as much as the opposition, but he'll raise enough to be competitive. The problem is going to be in local races, in races for the Senate, for the House of Representatives, when these billionaires come in and spend tens of millions of dollars to defeat a candidate they don't like or to support a candidate they do like.