In his 1972 epic on the origins of the U.S. war in Vietnam, the great journalist David Halberstam told of then-new Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s coming back from his first meeting with the top people President John F. Kennedy had picked to serve in his administration.
Johnson was dazzled by how brilliant they all were and told his mentor, Sam Rayburn, how smart each Kennedy appointee was. After listening to his fellow Texan, Rayburn said: “Well, Lyndon, everything you say may be true, but I’d feel a whole lot better if one of them had ever run for sheriff.”
I thought of Rayburn’s rejoinder after the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to remove the “aggregate” limit (a measly $123,200) an individual can give, every two years, to federal candidates and party committees.
On behalf of all but one of the court majority that only four years ago had told a surprised nation that corporations, because they were effectively entitled to the same freedom of speech right as American citizens, were free to make unlimited political contributions, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” And because, as we have learned previously from this same court, money is speech, freedom of speech includes the right to "contribute to a candidate’s campaign.”
Are these men in the court majority so hermetically sealed off from the rest of Washington that they don't know — or don’t care — that, in American politics, sadly, big money buys access, and access translates to influence? Thanks to Roberts’ court, the 1 percent is free at last to try to buy the kind of government it prefers. The American voters’ already-diminished public faith in the integrity of our political process, as a direct result of the Supreme Court’s decisions killing limits on the political contribution from corporations and individuals, will be even further eroded.
Listen to the words of former Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., a card-carrying conservative who, shortly after leaving Congress, told Speaking Freely, a book on money and politics, that “the lobbying over China MFN (most-favored nation trading status) was disgusting.”
Scarborough, now the host of the popular Morning Joe TV show, was blunt about what he saw firsthand: “There’s no way in hell that MFN would have passed in ’95, ’96, ’97, ’98, ’99 and 2000 if all those companies hadn’t come flooding in and making contributions and asking for people’s support ... what drove the debate every year was the allure of corporate dollars flooding into members’ bank accounts. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that money changed votes ...”
But the court majority insists that the only legitimate justification for the government to limit political giving is to prevent “quid pro quo” corruption. In other words, to stop direct bribes. The sounds, scents and clear appearance of corruption by money is apparently not good enough. It is a national tragedy that none of these distinguished jurists ever did run for sheriff, because it would have given them a real-life view of the intersection of money and politics. The kind Scarborough saw up close and was disgusted by.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.