Money in Politics

May 26, 2015

For decades before the Supreme Court decided Citizens United, political scientists concluded that more money helped our democracy by increasing competition. They had also concluded that it did not disadvantage Democrats, who would hold their own in fundraising. Even after Citizens United, those conclusions still seem true. But those scholars did not address other ways that money changes politics.

I’m still angry with Ralph Nader for his part in the 2000 election. His claim that there was no difference between the parties seems way off the mark. It’s hard to imagine Al Gore would have made the same mistakes George Bush did. But Nader was onto something else. Every candidate, from Gore to Hilary and Bush to Romney, has sought support from the financial industry and other tycoons and multinationals. Some regulatory proposals looked different when first made but all were whittled down. Obama supported Elizabeth Warren for a new agency but relented to the opposition. Money matters.

That’s fiendishly difficult to measure. Most scientific work is based on comparisons. When everybody’s doing it, there are no satisfactory comparisons.

But the consequences are huge. The cost of campaigns is increasing fast, doubling since 2000. More than a fifth of the expense of Senate races, and more than a third of the cost of House races came from PACs in 2014. Outside organizations now spend more than 20% of campaign expenses, increasingly from undisclosed sources. Of the rest, less than a third of 1% of the adult population of the U.S. provides two thirds of all individual contributions to federal candidates, PACs and Parties.[i]

What do they get for that? From 2007 to 2012, according to the Sunlight Foundation, “America’s most politically active corporations spent a combined $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions.” The Foundation concluded that, in return, those same corporations got “$4.4 trillion in federal business and support,” more than the government paid all Social Security recipients, and two-thirds of all the money that all of us together as “individual taxpayers paid into the federal treasury.” Kevin Phillips had described the power of such political investment as many thousands to one?[ii] Sunlight Foundation calculated that “for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government,” a seventy-six thousand percent return.[iii] Contributions coupled with lobbying work exceedingly well at those levels.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues elaborated the impact of what they call the “selectorate,” the people who dominate the choice of political leadership.[iv] As the selectorate shrinks, politicians direct ever increasing public benefits toward that shrinking group and fund them on the backs of everyone else, paving a path to the collapse of democratic government. Here, that one tenth of one percent of Americans, who bring home the great majority of America’s wealth, dominate our politics as they do our wallets.

Political scientists urge public funding as the best available solution. Just take money out of the equation. The public doesn’t like funding politicians they may not agree with, and we don’t much like paying their salaries either. But to get a politics which takes account of the welfare of the entire American population, it appears to be the most likely path. And a very good investment.

Next week, the risks.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 26, 2015.

[i] The Center for Responsive Politics keeps track of the data at OpenSecrets.org. See https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/index.php, https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/cost.php and https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/donordemographics.php [visited May 12, 2015] for the information presented.

[ii] Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy (Random House 2002).

[iii] https://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2014/11/17/fixed-fortunes-biggest-corporate-political-interests-spend-billions-get-trillions/.

[iv] Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2011); Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson and James D. Morrow, The Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).


Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama

March 31, 2015

In Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, decided a week ago on March 25, 2015, the Supreme Court reversed and sent back the lower court decision. The federal district court had thrown out a challenge to Alabama’s 2012 redistricting. That court held that the redistricting was not a racial gerrymander. The Supreme Court said the lower court used the wrong standard.

It’s important to understand what a decision like that does. The Supreme Court did not decide whether the redistricting violated the Constitution or not. It did not decide whether Alabama or the Black Caucus should win. It sent the case back to Alabama with instructions on how to figure out who should win.

The redistricting was accomplished by Alabama statute signed May 31, 2012, before the 2012 election. Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit later that year. The Court held a trial in mid-2013 and reached a decision throwing out the challenges in December of 2013. In 2014 the Supreme Court decided to hear the case. That Court now sends it back for more legal work.

This case was unusual for how quickly the case resulted in an opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court. Even so, after three years of legal proceedings the case is hardly over and could still take years before a resolution.

At the beginning of the proceedings, before any decision in the case, Alabama sought pre-clearance from Attorney General Eric Holder, under the portion of the Voting Rights Act which required Alabama to get the approval of the U.S. Attorney General for the electoral changes. That was called preclearance. In this case Attorney General Holder decided not to object to the districting. Only after Holder pre-cleared the statute did the judicial process get moving. But, while the case was in the lower court, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional.[1]

Regardless of whether Alabama and Holder or the challengers had the better argument in this case, Holder pre-cleared the districting quickly but it took approximately three years for the courts to reach an inconclusive decision along the way toward ultimately deciding whether the districting is OK. The difference of course is several state and national elections. So, although it didn’t matter in this case, the time difference illustrates that one important result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013 that the pre-clearance provisions are unconstitutional, is that challengers may have to wait much longer for justice.

Secondly, this 2015 decision was written by Justice Breyer. He wrote for five members of the Court, joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan. Committees often make poor writers. In this case, although Kennedy merely signed Breyer’s opinion, Breyer had to write an opinion to satisfy Justice Kennedy and consistent with Kennedy’s prior opinions. The result is a legal analysis that is hard to pin down and could be used creatively by either the majority or the dissenters in future cases. In that respect, Justice Scalia’s criticism is surely right – this decision won’t stand up.

That doesn’t mean Justice Scalia is right on the merits. It does mean the Justices have not understood the concept of gerrymandering, have not taken seriously enough the work of political scientists to analyze gerrymandering and put the concept on a much stronger, and precise foundation.[2] Law without science is often hollow.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 31, 2015.

[1] Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U. S. ___ (2013).

[2] See Brief Of Amici Curiae Professors Gary King, et al, 2006 U.S. S. Ct. Briefs LEXIS 30, in League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399 (2006). See also Stephen E. Gottlieb, In ‘Vieth,’ Court Continues to Misunderstand Gerrymandering, N. Y. Law Journal, August 19, 2004, at 4.


I don’t get it

November 11, 2014

I don’t get it. Political scientists tell us that the advantage of democracy is that the elected officials have to act for the benefit of most of the people. And if they don’t, they lose.

So the Republican Administration of George Bush delivered war, torture and economic disaster – and the Republicans then lost the White House. But then the Republicans calculated that if they could prevent Obama from delivering any benefits, they could take over. They went on the campaign trail saying that Obama failed because he hadn’t forced them to pass what he wanted, and at the same time telling the public that he had done a great deal of damage by doing everything he wanted to do. Never mind the contradiction.

But lots of people seem to have bought it. So how’s democracy supposed to work?

All over the political spectrum people seem to be voting against their own interests, convinced by nonsense that what hurts, helps them. Hard-working people who don’t make a lot of money vote for tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. Businessmen vote against investment in critical infrastructure they use daily.

The electoral process looks tribal to me. Science, expertise, experience, all get reinterpreted by who’s who supporting what. If Princeton economists support policies that help the poor, then those policies must be bad and must not support “me” – because my interests differ from the interests of the poor. Remember I’m middle-class. I couldn’t share the interests of the poor. Increase in the minimum wage? Forget it; I’m on salary. By the way who’d you say buys my stuff? Couldn’t be we’re all in this together!

Well most of us. See “I’m” on the side of the billionaires, even though they make infinitely more than me and won’t share a penny – that’s why they pay for so many lobbyists to squeeze the last penny out of the government, and stiff me all the way. That isn’t supposed to happen in a democracy.

Except that the plutocrats – ok that’s the old name – the super-rich, the 1/10 of 1%, or fewer, the oligarchs – cut the bottom out of the voting booths by making it harder and more expensive to vote, and by splashing money at the media and the commentators ‘til it sticks or just confuses people so they stay home – so our oligarchs can control the political system for themselves.

Will the people fight back? The damage is all over the legal spectrum. Patent and copyright law? Forget the artists and inventors. Minimum wages? Forget the workers. Infrastructure? Forget the people who drive or ride – the super-rich fly private jets or live abroad. Forget the small business that benefits from infrastructure – the super-rich got their breaks for businesses so big they don’t need to worry about regular folk – they own the markets. Taxes – guess who gets tax relief while the rest of us are left with the bill while the super-rich make noise about deficits? Wonder why we have those!

Are we letting democracy sink that low? Sounds like the dictator’s game – shrink the electorate and lavish huge benefits on your supporters.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 11, 2014.


A View of the Ballot

September 15, 2014

I got on line the other night to see what to expect at the voting booth today. We have all been hearing about the primary races for Governor and Lieutenant Governor, although polls tell us that lots of people haven’t heard of Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu, or if they’ve heard the names don’t know why. That’s clearly not true of WAMC listeners. But what else is on the ballot? Actually plenty. Read the rest of this entry »


The Anti-Union Court

July 1, 2014

The Court decided yesterday in Harris v. Quinn that at least some of the employees who work under a collective bargaining agreement don’t have to share in the costs of negotiating that agreement. The Court says it violated their First Amendment rights. How many unions and employees it will apply to is still unclear but this is not the first move the Roberts Court has made in that direction.[i] Sometimes the patterns matter much more than the individual decisions, whether good or bad. Read the rest of this entry »


The Threat of Self-Styled Armed Militias

May 20, 2014

Some of us remember having to sign loyalty oaths. In the language of the U.S. Supreme Court, one had to swear that he or she had not “advocate[d] the overthrow of government by force, violence, or any unlawful means.” That included the overthrow of “the Government of the United States or of any political subdivisions.” In the 1950s everyone from barbers to professors had to sign those things and even cafeteria workers got fired on mere suspicion of disloyalty, the absence of proof notwithstanding.

Of course it was political. Senator McCarthy famously attacked President Truman and many of the people in the cabinet as disloyal. Republicans attacked Democrats and liberals as if they supported a Communist invasion. It was a campaign of character assassination. Charges were brought without facts that prosecutors were willing to reveal until the Supreme Court pointed out that it had the obligation to insist on fundamental due process like the right to see the charges and confront witnesses. But at least, at some level, however misguided, it was about patriotism.

Now, a group of armed self-styled militiamen blocked the federal government from charging Cliven Bundy the fee for grazing his cattle on federal land. Then they took their weapons to a closed federal canyon, to open it by force for use by ATVs. They bluntly deny the authority of the federal government. To make it worse, prominent Republicans called Bundy’s refusal to pay for grazing his cattle on federal land, and the armed intervention of his militia supporters, “patriotic.” Read the rest of this entry »


Economics, Lawyers and the Risk to American Democracy

April 1, 2014

Ever notice that I frequently talk about economics. What’s a lawyer doing talking about economics? I did read and study economics but there are other reasons why economic issues are dear to this heart.

Lawyers do lots of different things. But for many of us, law is a helping profession. We work with people who are headed for bankruptcy and other events that will turn their lives upside down. We do our best to help them avoid personal tragedies – or pick up the pieces. We don’t think of clients as numbers but as people, most of whom we like and respect. We learn not to think of financial reverses as a judgment about their character, decency or personal value. It happens for all sorts of reasons, often beyond our clients’ control. When it is a mistake, it is often a part of learning how to do business or operate in this world. Some of the world’s most successful people have been through bankruptcy. Up close and personal, we care.

So the national recession wasn’t just a set of numbers for me. It was a catastrophe in the lives of many people. They were passengers on the national ship on a foggy night when the captain  crashed into another vessel. Millions of people went overboard, leaving their jobs and belongings behind. Rescuing people isn’t a choice; it’s an obligation just as it was not optional whether to pick our friends up from the wreck of the Achille Lauro. An S.O.S. has a clear and obligatory meaning.

But there is another reason. One could trace it to a famous French aristocrat who visited and wrote about the U.S. in the 1830s but statistical studies beginning after World War II keep making the point that poverty and inequality are both hostile to the survival of democracy. Historians studied the failure of democracies on multiple continents and reached the same conclusion. Others with different methodologies keep reaching similar conclusions.

It’s not a surprising conclusion. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, many were worried that we would lose our system of self-government, and some advised President Roosevelt to take dictatorial powers, but he refused. Now science has come to support common sense. Poverty can be dangerous, not only to individuals but to society. It makes people desperate and when they are, all bets are off.

With that knowledge, it is painful to me to watch Congress leave the victims of corporate shenanigans in the dirt as if they were so much trash. And as an attorney, it is particularly painful to me to watch the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts doing everything in its power to play the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham, robbing from the poor to pay the rich. Many of those decisions are complex legally as well as economically but their effect on the fairness of the contracts we sign daily and on the lives of many people are extensive and often tragic. To me, the Roberts Court is threatening our democratic patrimony.

The personal suffering would be enough. The risk to our country is hard to bear.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 1, 2014.


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