Congress passed – unanimously in the Senate and without debate – and President Obama will sign, H.R. 2019, the “Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act” (named after a 10-year old child who died last year of brain cancer). If the legislation actually did what it touts – to finance pediatric research – it would be a noble bill for a noble cause.
But it is a fig-leaf bill. Its real purpose is to begin dismantling the presidential public financing system, and is very unlikely to produce any revenues for pediatric research.
The bill was originally introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), a longtime opponent of campaign finance reform. After Harper was unable to persuade Congress to approve earlier legislation that would have entirely defunded the public financing program, Harper re-worked the bill into what it is known now.
The legislation transfers public funds used to pay for the nominating conventions into the general treasury, then states that those funds may be used for pediatric research, if Congress ever decides to appropriate the funds for that purpose.
This same Congress slashed National Institute of Health (NIH) funding by $1.55 billion, which finances the pediatric research program, in the appropriations bills, and then placed caps on any further spending by NIH. The Kids First Research Act, if ever implemented, would transfer from the presidential public financing system to pediatric research, a pittance of what Congress slashed from the research budget. And even that pittance is not likely to happen. Given current spending caps on governmental agencies, Congress also would have to pass legislation lifting the spending ceiling for the National Institutes of Health to carry through with this appropriation, something that this Congress is very unlikely to do.
The U.S. Supreme Court could soon issue its decision in Shaun McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case that challenges aggregate contribution limits to federal candidates, political parties, and political action committees. Several outcomes are possible, ranging from a complete elimination of said limits to a total preservation of those limits.
However, there is a third (perhaps more likely) middle-ground scenario in which the Supreme Court maintains aggregate limits on contributions to political parties and PACs, but eliminates them for contributions to candidates. In the aftermath such a ruling, a wealthy donor could still effectively contribute more than 24 times the legal limit to political parties, according to a new report by Public Citizen.
Now, imagine a world in which well-reasoned, appropriate limits established by the government were overlooked by individuals and the government itself, allowing people and businesses to exceed reasonable limits by 24 times the legal threshold.
Currently, a driver can legally drive with a blood alcohol level under 0.08. Imagine if a police officer looked the other way if a driver registered a 1.94 reading, 24 times greater in this case would mean the person’s blood is nearly two percent alcohol, which would almost certainly be fatal.
The speed limits on most major highways fluctuate between 60 and 80 miles per hour. What if drivers were able to drive 1,440 miles per hour, or 24 times the posted limit, without the government intervening? Even twice the legal speed limit would pose significant danger to the driver and other motorists.
Plutocracy or democracy; the rich or the rest of us; legalized bribery or law and order; corruption or common sense.
The choice facing the U.S. Supreme Court today in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission could not be clearer.
If the court decides to strike down limits on what an individual can give directly to candidates, parties and PACs, the real-world impact is plain enough. A few hundred people will be empowered to spend millions to buy elections.
We will see a rise in corruption both as the public understands the term – meaning the entire political system will shift still more to favor the super-rich – and as the Supreme Court defines it – meaning quid pro quo corruption.
There is reason to hope the court will decide to uphold current giving limits. Striking down the aggregate limit rule will require abandoning the underpinnings of Buckley v. Valeo, the foundation of current campaign spending law.
So, we must hope the court respects precedent and common sense.
But we shouldn’t have to hope. That’s why it’s time for a constitutional amendment to restore our democracy – an amendment that firmly establishes the people’s right to control campaign spending and ensure that we maintain a government of, by and for the people – not the superwealthy and giant corporations.
Note: On July 25, U.S. Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and David Price (D-N.C.) submitted an amicus curiae, or “friend-of-the-court,” brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in defense of the Federal Election Commission in this case. Public Citizen Attorney Scott Nelson and former U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman are leading their team of attorneys.
McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), a case whose impact on our political system could be as damaging as Citizens United, is headed for the U.S. Supreme Court tomorrow, Oct. 8, and it could dramatically boost the corrupting influence of the wealthy over candidates in federal elections.
In the case, the justices will consider whether to eliminate the limit on the total sum that people can give directly to candidates and political parties in a single election. The current overall limit for an individual making direct contributions to parties, political action committees (PACs) and federal candidates is $123,200 per two-year election cycle, but a win for the challengers in McCutcheon could allow total contributions above $7 million.
The case is being heard just a few years after the highly controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the court gave corporations the green light to spend unlimited sums to influence elections. That decision, the biggest game-changer to date in a long-term effort by corporate interests to kill campaign finance laws, led to unprecedented spending by the wealthy and corporations in the 2010 midterm congressional elections and last year’s presidential elections. It also sparked a robust movement, led in part by Public Citizen, for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision. Depending on how the justices rule, McCutcheon could be the next game-changer.
Last week my colleague Rick Claypool and I hosted our second online conversation with Public Citizen activists. Thanks to everyone who tuned in!
Here’s the video in case you weren’t able to make it:
In this installment, Rick and I reviewed four of the Congress Watch division’s key legislative priorities. We outlined the details of the Wall Street Trading and Speculators Tax Act, the Arbitration Fairness Act, the Shareholder Protection Act, and the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act. Then we had a discussion of why it’s important for us to push our lawmakers to cosponsor these pieces of legislation, and how Public Citizen activists play a crucial role in achieving our goals during the month-long Congressional recess.
During the month of August, lawmakers make their way back to their home districts. This is the perfect time to swing by your member’s office for a meeting or just drop off some material for him or her to review. During our next webinar, we’ll give folks tips and tricks for dropping in on their member of Congress during the recess. Sign up to let us know you’re interested.
Connecting with lawmakers during the recess is an effective way to let them know what issues matter to the people who live in their districts. Former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) had this to say about the role of grassroots activists in the passage of Dodd-Frank:
“The role of public opinion [during the passage of Dodd-Frank] was … to give [members] the courage of their convictions, and in particular to enable them to withstand the political pressures being generated by the financial interests that opposed the bill.”
Remember: Even if they’re not hearing from us, they’re definitely hearing from corporate lobbyists and other opponents of the public interest.