“Money controls Washington,” according to Congressman Vance McAllister (R-LA), who also told an audience of Louisiana accountants that Congress is caught in a “steady cycle of voting for fundraising and money instead of voting for what is right.”
McAllister’s comments won’t come as much of a surprise to most Americans who do not wear black robes and work at a marble palace across the street from the U.S. Capitol, but there are five unusually powerful individuals who will probably find them baffling. In a pair of Supreme Court decisions — Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC — the five conservative justices dismantled most of America’s campaign finance regulation. Citizens United permits corporations to spend unlimited money influencing election, so long as that money is funneled through non-campaign groups such as Super PACs (it also paved the road for the creation of Super PACs and similar groups). McCutcheon legalized various money laundering schemes permitting high-dollar donors to funnel seven-figure donations to contested races.
The rationale of both decisions is that the Constitution only permits campaign finance regulation that targets a very narrowly defined form of corruption. “The fact that [donors] may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that these officials are corrupt,” according to Citizens United. Nevertheless, Citizens United and McCutcheon do permit campaign finance regulation that “target[s] what we have called ‘quid pro quo’ corruption or its appearance.” That is, the law is powerless against corrupt lawmakers who trade money for access, but it can punish those corrupt individuals who exchange “dollars for political favors.”
Which is why McAllister’s statement — a statement he is probably only comfortable making because he is retiring from Congress due to a sex scandal — is so significant. The congressman isn’t describing a Washington where lawmakers merely spend extra time with their wealthiest donors — a situation that the Roberts Court somehow does not find problematic — he describes a Washington where lawmakers are trapped in a “steady cycle of voting for fundraising.” They are actually casting votes for the very purpose of attracting donors. This comes very close to the kind of “dollars for political favors” that even this Supreme Court claims to find objectionable.
Close, however, probably will not be enough. Indeed, the Court in Citizens United practically celebrated the process whereby lawmakers grow more and more responsive to their donors as a core function of American democracy:
Favoritism and influence are not . . . avoidable in representative politics. It is in the nature of an elected representative to favor certain policies, and, by necessary corollary, to favor the voters and contributors who support those policies. It is well understood that a substantial and legitimate reason, if not the only reason, to cast a vote for, or to make a contribution to, one candidate over another is that the candidate will respond by producing those political outcomes the supporter favors. Democracy is premised on responsiveness.
In his speech, McAllister relayed a story of just how sensitive some lawmakers have become to the views of wealthy donors. During a vote on a bill related to the Bureau of Land Management, McAllister says that he asked a fellow congressman how they would vote. The colleague replied “Vote no and you will get a $1,200 check from the Heritage Foundation. If you vote yes, you will get a $1,000 check from some environmental impact group.” After McAllister voted no, he complained to the colleague that he never received the Heritage Foundation check — and the colleague responded “[w]ell, I got one. Why didn’t you?”
In fairness, it is likely that McAllister’s unnamed colleague was mistaken that Heritage would cut a check to congressmen who opposed this particular bill. Heritage is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and its political arm, Heritage Action, is organized as a 501(c)(4) non-profit. Both c3s and c4s are not permitted to give money directly to political candidates, although their employees and major benefactors certainly can.
Nevertheless, the world that McAllister describes is in many ways worse than one where interest groups come to lawmakers with briefcases full of cash in order to buy their vote. According to McAllister, wealthy donors do not even need to be told how to tailor their votes in order to bring in donations — they already know what the interest groups want and believe that, by casting the right votes, money will flow into their campaign coffers.
A key scene in the 1992 Eddie Murphy parody The Distinguished Gentleman portrays a Capitol Hill that is corrupt in exactly the same way McAllister describes. Murphy, who plays a freshman congressman, meets with a senior colleague to discuss where he should stand on particular issues, and the colleague tells him which interest groups are willing to pay him to vote yea or nay on each issue:
Twenty-two years later, the Roberts Court not only held that there is nothing wrong with Eddie Murphy’s Washington — it held that this parody of a government is mandated by the Constitution itself.