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Why Washington can’t be governed

The rise of easy money has made it hard for political leaders to lead. Now, the Supreme Court may make it even harder.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

The rise of easy money has made it hard for political leaders to lead. Now, the Supreme Court may make it even harder.

For more than a week, Americans have watched as their political leaders have argued, pandered and postured their way to the longest government shutdown in 17 years. At the root of it, the shutdown is an example of just how far away our lawmakers have gotten from the work of actually governing. In fact, the rise of easy money in politics may mean the U.S. Congress is looking at a extended state of political paralysis. The problem: the decentralization of modern political parties.

The problem can be traced back to 2002 and a law designed, ironically, to limit money in politics. The passage of McCain-Feingold (also known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) stopped “soft money” donations to the major parties, but in doing so, made it that much harder for the parties to raise big money. Then, in 2010, the “Citizens United” decision provided the blueprint of how to raise money through Super PAC’s and special interest groups outside of the two party system. Big money was back – but the parties were no longer holding the purse strings.

As a consequence, the parties themselves became weak and decentralized. Candidates deemed too far outside of the mainstream to be a major party candidate were able to get financial support from outside groups. If you couldn’t find a group to support you and you were wealthy, you could finance your own campaign. Barring that, one or two wealthy friends could set up a PAC and help you that way.

Without the lion’s share of the political money, the parties lost power and leverage over lawmakers who no longer needed their help. Today, we see that exemplified in how the House Republican conference seems to be telling House Speaker John Boehner what to do instead of the other way around. Now, the Supreme Court could take things one step further.

In oral arguments before the Court Tuesday, the attorney for Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon insisted the justices do away with aggregate contribution limits – rules that restrict a donor from handing out more than $123,200 in total contributions in any two-year election cycle. McCutcheon has pointedly refused to challenge base limits, which restrict a person from giving more than $2,600 to any one candidate, but he insists that if he abides by base limits, he should be able to give as much money as he likes to as many people as he likes.

“I would like to see more competition, more candidates, more challengers, you know- more ideas,” McCutcheon told NBC’s Pete Williams. “And not every candidate out there can self fund, so a lot of candidates are faced with raising money from private individuals. I should be able to support as many candidates and committees as I choose with my money.”

He may very well get his wish. In fact, there are members of the court who would like to see both aggregate and individual contribution limits go by the wayside. “There are at least three votes – Justices Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas – that would strike down that distinction (between putting limits on contributions and allowing unlimited spending) and let all contributions be unregulated.” The key to the decision, Williams points out, will be Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito.

Supporters of the distinction say it prevents corruption and prevents individuals from having an undue influence in elections. However, opponents say that in the days of the modern super PAC, rules like that are simply outdated. The hope for opponents is that if one set of contribution limits is struck down, the rest of them may soon follow.