It is tempting to think that there is only one issue hitting Washington these days: the coming apocalypse over a government shutdown and a possible default. It is, to be sure, the Big One, and it should dominate our discussion and analysis. But there are many other issues looming out there that deserve broader focus and attention. One is the farm bill, a case study in dysfunction and chaos over the past three years which has devastated farmers hit by the most significant drought since the Great Depression and which, if unresolved by the end of the month, could cause milk prices to skyrocket, among other things.
A key part of that dispute is the most punitive, cruel, and hypocritical action taken by Congress in years: the move by the House to slash food stamps in the face of a continuing stagnant economy. Such action would leave hungry millions of Americans, including children, despite the fact that their erstwhile breadwinners cannot find work. In the process, the move would also strike down state waivers for food stamps in favor of a rigid work requirement, without providing any funds for work training. House Republicans, led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, pushed this plan as a way to cut government spending — even as he and his colleagues voted to keep in place generous taxpayer subsidies for multimillionaire big farmers and billionaire farm conglomerates. Government spending is OK, apparently, if it is for fat cats and contributors, just not for poor people.
Another issue, which is my main topic today, is less about Congress and the executive branch, and more about the other branch — the Supreme Court. On Oct. 8, the Court is going to take up the next big campaign finance case, McCutcheon v. FEC, a challenge to the overall contribution limits for individual donors to candidates and parties, limits that were institutionalized in the Buckley v. Valeo decision in 1976 that undergirds Court jurisprudence on campaign finance.
McCutcheon refers to Shaun McCutcheon, who has given a lot of money to Republicans and joined with the Republican National Committee to bring the suit. Their argument starts with the idea that Citizens United’s reasoning — that limits on independent spending by corporations violated the First Amendment — should also apply to limits on what individuals can contribute, in the aggregate, to candidates and parties. Undergirding the argument is the idea that since the Citizens United ruling, parties and candidates have been put at a disadvantage compared with corporations, other groups, and individuals who are allowed to flood political campaigns with money through independent expenditures. Now, the argument goes, we need to compensate by freeing up the parties and candidates to raise more money.
McCutcheon does not directly challenge the limits on individual contributions to individual candidates and parties, just the overall limits per cycle on what individuals can contribute to candidates and parties. As such, it can seem more reasonable on the surface: If I can only give $2,500 to any candidate, why shouldn’t I be able to give $2,500 to as many candidates as I want? Right now, individuals are limited in this election cycle to contributing $48,600 to all federal candidates and $74,600 to party committees and PACs.
But here is the brutal reality if the Court agrees with McCutcheon: Presidential candidates, House and Senate party leaders, and individual members of Congress could then form joint fundraising committees with national and state party committees and leverage contributions from individuals into huge sums to support their campaigns — maximums of more than $1 million for individual presidential candidates, more than $3.5 million for committees formed by congressional leaders, and nearly $200,000 for individual congressional candidates. We know, based on past experience, that presidential candidates, congressional leaders, and candidates would quickly spring into action to create the maximum number of joint fundraising committees and maximize the number of $3 million donors — and, of course, every candidate and office holder would know who was ponying up the amounts.
What if Congress then moved to outlaw joint fundraising committees (as if that could really happen!)? It would make the massive contributions a bit more cumbersome; donors (or their accountants) would have to write a lot of individual checks to individual party committees and candidates, instead of one or two big checks. The candidates and officeholders would still know clearly who had given the big bucks — and would open their office doors happily to them when they wanted or needed something from the government.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his Citizens United opinion, made the astonishing assertion that unlimited sums spent “independently” of candidates and parties by corporations could not possibly have a corrupting influence. But Citizens United went out of its way not to make the same claim for contributions to candidates and parties. The corruption standard for limits on individual contributions undergirds Buckley and every major campaign finance decision since. Ruling in favor of McCutcheon would knock the pins out from Buckley and set us down a path to obliteration of all remaining campaign-reform limits.
In his confirmation hearing, John Roberts emphasized repeatedly that he would respect the previous decisions of the Court, would look to narrow the scope of decisions so that he could aim for 8-1 or 9-0 decisions instead of the frequent 5-4 divisions, and would bend over backwards to respect the role of other institutions, especially Congress. Citizens United demolished those pledges. A case brought on narrow grounds was abruptly broadened by Chief Justice Roberts and his conservative colleagues to include grounds that had never been initially asserted or briefed by the plaintiffs bringing the case, and the decision threw out one issued by the Court just a few years earlier, and effectively discarded decades of established law, jurisprudence, and practice over the appropriate role of corporations and unions in campaigns.
McCutcheon will tell us soon enough whether Citizens United was a one-time occurrence or part of a broader, surreptitious plan to demolish the long-standing campaign finance regime and create a Wild West in politics, done in a few large incremental steps. McCutcheon would be step two. If it happens, expect steps three and four, which would eliminate all contribution limits and allow corporations to give directly to candidates and parties. And then brace yourselves for a political system that will make the Gilded Age look like the a golden era of clean politics.
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Before we get to the specifics of this exposé about escorts working the Iowa and New Hampshire primary crowds, let’s get three things out of the way: 1.) It’s from Cosmopolitan; 2.) most of the women quoted use fake (if colorful) names; and 3.) again, it’s from Cosmopolitan. That said, here’s what we learned:
- Business was booming: one escort who says she typically gets two inquiries a weekend got 15 requests in the pre-primary weekend.
- Their primary season clientele is a bit older than normal—”40s through mid-60s, compared with mostly twentysomething regulars” and “they’ve clearly done this before.”
- They seemed more nervous than other clients, because “the stakes are higher when you’re working for a possible future president” but “all practiced impeccable manners.”
- One escort “typically enjoy[s] the company of Democrats more, just because I feel like our views line up a lot more.”
No matter where you stand on mandating companies to include a backdoor in encryption technologies, it doesn’t make sense to allow that decision to be made on a state level. “The problem with state-level legislation of this nature is that it manages to be both wildly impractical and entirely unenforceable,” writes Brian Barrett at Wired. There is a solution to this problem. “California Congressman Ted Lieu has introduced the ‘Ensuring National Constitutional Rights for Your Private Telecommunications Act of 2016,’ which we’ll call ENCRYPT. It’s a short, straightforward bill with a simple aim: to preempt states from attempting to implement their own anti-encryption policies at a state level.”
Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”
The New Covenant. The Third Way. The Democratic Leadership Council style. Call it what you will, but whatever centrist triangulation Bill Clinton embraced in 1992, Hillary Clinton wants no part of it in 2016. Writing for Bloomberg, Sasha Issenberg and Margaret Talev explore how Hillary’s campaign has “diverged pointedly” from what made Bill so successful: “For Hillary to survive, Clintonism had to die.” Bill’s positions in 1992—from capital punishment to free trade—“represented a carefully calibrated diversion from the liberal orthodoxy of the previous decade.” But in New Hampshire, Hillary “worked to juggle nostalgia for past Clinton primary campaigns in the state with the fact that the Bill of 1992 or the Hillary of 2008 would likely be a marginal figure within today’s Democratic politics.”
At first, “it was pleasant” to see Trevor Noah “smiling away and deeply dimpling in the Stewart seat, the seat that had lately grown gray hairs,” writes The Atlantic‘s James Parker in assessing the new host of the once-indispensable Daily Show. But where Jon Stewart was a heavyweight, Noah is “a very able lightweight, [who] needs time too. But he won’t get any. As a culture, we’re not about to nurture this talent, to give it room to grow. Our patience was exhausted long ago, by some other guy. We’re going to pass judgment and move on. There’s a reason Simon Cowell is so rich. Impress us today or get thee hence. So it comes to this: It’s now or never, Trevor.”