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Monday, June 26, 2006

News From the Nation's Capitol

Reports from Washington D.C. on two fronts show a federal government intent on preserving the power of wealthy interests in our country's political landscape.

As Toni Locy reports for the AP in the Washington Post, today the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Vermont's law which set limits on the size of permissible political contributions and on how much candidates could spend on a campaign. And as the judicial branch was busy siding with wealthy interests over the rest of us, the legislative branch was busy sitting on its hands on lobbying reform, as reported by Jeffrey Birnbaum and Jim VanDeHei in the Washington Post.

Vermont
From its outset, the case (Randall v. Sorrell), promised to be an important one. Vermont was the first state to pass a law limiting spending on political campaigns since the 1976 Supreme Court decision Buckley v. Valeo. The Buckley court had ruled that money is speech and that therefore the only constitutionally permissible interests in regulating such speech were the corruption or appearance of corruption of candidates. This meant that while limits on political contributions were OK, there was not much room constitutionally for limiting spending.

But the vacancies on the Court created by death of Chief Justice Rehnquist and resignation of Justice O'Connor put two new justices into the mix, neither with a well-defined record on campaign finance. While the Supreme Court had upheld low contributions limits only a few years previously in Nixon v. Shrink and had generally been moving in a direction of more respect for campaign finance reforms, it was possible that Vermont's contribution limits were now also in play.

In a split ruling with six separate opinions, the Court struck Vermont's limits on spending and contributions. In doing so, the Court did not hold that contribution limits are unconstitutional per se; rather, that Vermont's ($200 for state reps; $400 for statewide candidates) were too low to pass constitutional muster. The Court gave short shrift to Vermont's spending limits, saying that nothing had changed since Buckley, and that Vermont's interest in limiting the amount of time candidates spend fundraising was not a constitutionally protected interest.

The upshot of the ruling is unclear, but we can probably expect a series of legal attacks on contribution limits in states and municipal jurisdictions around the country. Equally important, Americans will continue to see massive spending on political campaigns.

No Lobbying Reform For You!
The failure of Congress to pass lobbying reform comes as little surprise, despite the repeated assertions of many congressional leaders in the wake of the Abramoff scandal that they would pass such reforms. Most members of Congress are hooked on the campaign cash from lobbyists and the wealthy interests they represent, which gives them the insulation from electoral accountability which members seek.

Screw your constituents over on health care? Who cares? The pharmaceutical and insurance industry will make sure you stay in office. Fail to address the growing gas prices? No worries! The petroleum companies and automakers will line your campaign coffers with enough cash to win your next six elections.

Putting It All Together
There is a connection between the Supreme Court's decision and Congress's refusal/inability to pass lobbying reform: money's stranglehold on our government. Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress is supposed to serve as the people's check on the Supreme Court. Instead of fulfilling that duty, Congress signed off this year on two new Supreme Court justices, both of whom sided with wealthy interests in today's decision. A decision, by the way, which benefits those members of Congress with the backing of wealthy interests - all of them, in other words. Every single member.

It becomes ever clearer that the American people no longer receive much in the way of representation in our nation's capitol. The legislative branch has become a fully functioning branch of corporate and wealthy America with the fervent and consistent backing of the judicial branch. Our constitutional rights to a representative government have been auctioned off piecemeal by the judicial branch, nominated by the executive branch and approved by the legislative.

Representative democracy in the USA is ... well, it isn't representative. And if a democracy is no longer representative, is it even still a democracy?

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