A case for concern

GETTY IMAGES Cornell Woolridge rallies yesterday outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., while justices hear arguments in a case on campaign-finance law.
GETTY IMAGES Cornell Woolridge rallies yesterday outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., while justices hear arguments in a case on campaign-finance law.
Posted: October 10, 2013

FRUSTRATED paying taxes for broken government?

Fearful of economic apocalypse if Washington continues its present course?

Well, rest easy.

The U.S. Supreme Court might provide relief.

It could end the burden of average citizens who think about, care about or wish they could do something about their democracy going down the drain.

The high court heard a case yesterday that has potential to further separate citizens from their government, thereby reducing input, interest or even worry.

It could be court-prescribed Ambien for the masses.

At issue, for the second time in less than four years, is legally expanding the (so-long-trampled) rights of the rich to influence the nation's elections and policies.

What's that? You thought the rich already were pretty well-set in that department?

Come on. Is enough ever enough?

This is round two of the price is right.

You remember Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission?

It was a court ruling in January 2010. It allows corporations and unions to donate unlimited funds to politics.

The basic reasoning behind the decision was that corporations and unions have the same First Amendment rights as individuals.

(Such reasoning no doubt led GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to tell a heckler in Iowa in August 2011, "Corporations are people, my friend.")

The result was a dam-burst of cash, much of it from newly formed, court-compliant "super PACs," that drove spending in the 2012 elections to a record $6 billion-plus.

Apparently, that's not enough.

Now a person is asking the same court, on the same First Amendment grounds, to do away with the generation-old limits on individual giving to federal campaigns.

The person is Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman who runs an electrical-engineering firm specializing in the mining industry.

Far as I can tell, he's not related to the Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen; though after signing a six-year, $51.5 million contract last year, Andrew certainly has dough to donate. Pat Toomey, take note.

The caps that McCutcheon (not Andrew) seeks to kill have been in place since the 1970s after the Watergate scandal. They include limits to individual federal candidates and on giving in the aggregate in any two-year cycle.

For example, while any individual's contribution to a federal candidate cannot exceed $5,200 ($2,600 in a primary; $2,600 in a general), current law allows any individual to give up to $48,600 total, spread over several candidates, plus up to $74,600 to political-party committees.

It is that aggregate of $123,200 per donor that's under challenge.

If it's tossed, expect that 2012 spending record - an amount that ballooned nearly $1 billion over 2008, due largely to the Citizens United ruling - to fade like the hopes of government reformers.

Such a ruling would allow an individual to give millions of dollars directly to candidates, handing people with lots of money further advantage in influencing, if not controlling, Congress.

"The current $123,200 cap is still more than double the income of the average family of four in this country," says Common Cause director Barry Kauffman.

Current U.S. census data show the gap between rich and poor in America is the greatest in more than 40 years.

A favorable ruling for McCutcheon (consistent with court thinking on Citizens United) will add access for those at the high end of that gap.

A decision likely won't come until spring, but presumably in time to affect the 2014 congressional races.

It would not affect Pennsylvania races, since Pennsylvania is one of only 11 states already allowing unlimited giving by individuals.

And you've seen what that means here.

So. Think things are bad now? Think you have no say in government now?

Keep watching. Pretty soon that might be all you can do.

Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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