WASHINGTON -- What is the most powerful political operation in the country in this 21st century? It's the United States Supreme Court. The men and women in black are on their way to deciding their second national election in just the first decade of the century.
In the year 2000, the justices stopped the counting of votes in the presidential election. This year they tilted (or mutilated) congressional elections by ruling -- in the case called United Citizens -- that corporations are people, only more so. What they ruled was that corporations (and unions) or groups they sponsor have the right to anonymously pump millions of dollars into campaigns. Citizens, you and me, can give much smaller amounts, but we have to reveal our names and addresses -- "transparency" they call that.
There is, to say, a heated debate going on about all this secret money. Two distinguished debaters, David Brooks of The New York Times and Al Hunt of Bloomberg News, have taken opposite (and extreme) sides of the argument.
Brooks' analysis appeared last Tuesday under the headline: "Don't Follow the Money."
Hunt wrote two days earlier under the headline: "Watergate Return Inevitable as Cash Floods Elections."
They are both commenting on the same set of facts: Because of the new Supreme Court decision, spending on next month's House and Senate elections may top $4 billion, a record. Undisclosed cash, most of it from unnamed corporations, could be between $250 million and $500 million.
As Brooks sees it, the money will have no impact; most candidates of both parties are perfectly capable of raising all the money they need to run as well as possible in their states or districts. So, according to his reasoning, the money does not change the politics on the ground. What it mainly does is make media consultants richer than they already are. He writes:
"I can see why media consultants would believe money is vitally important: The more money there is, the more they make. ... So why is there so much money in politics? Well, every consultant has an incentive to tell every client to raise more money. The donors give money because it makes them feel as if they are doing good and because they get to hang out at exclusive parties. The candidates are horribly insecure and grasp at any straw that gives them a sense of advantage. In the end, however, money is a talisman. It makes people feel good because they think it has magical properties."
Hunt, a more experienced pundit, says:
"A prediction: The U.S. is due for a huge scandal involving big money, bribery and politicians. Not the small fry that dominates the ethics fights in Washington; really big stuff; think Watergate."
"All campaign funds aren't the same. Even the purest campaign-finance overhaul advocates have trouble faulting small grassroots contributions. ... Large contributions from corporations, unions, trade associations or wealthy individuals are another matter; these donors often expect something in return. Few of those making sizable and secret gifts to the (Republican) effort are engaged in selfless acts of good governance."
"Ever since Watergate, politicians have debated rules on the size and scope of campaign contributions. The 2002 McCain-Feingold measure, which cracked down on contributions and was signed by Bush, a Republican, was the culmination of years of intense struggle. In subsequent years, the courts, dominated by conservatives, have chipped away at the law, Citizens United representing the latest and most sweeping decision."
Hunt quotes a man of the past: "There is no legitimate case against transparency. 'Sunlight,' the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously noted, 'is the best of disinfectants.'"
The last time we ran an election in the shadows was 1972. Watergate. That year, with the re-election campaign of President Nixon, cash literally flowed into the White House to beat the date that new campaign regulations came into effect. There were little piles and drawers full of cash on the desks of middle-level campaign officials. Where did that money come from? No one really knew. Where did it go? No one knows how much there was or where it all ended up.
That was the lesson of giving and taking money without transparency or accountability. It damned near brought down the country. If Hunt is right, and I think he is, we are in for more of the same. The only question now is the timing of the next Watergate.