On Tuesday, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court convened to hear arguments challenging the constitutionality of the current limitations on the amounts individuals can contribute -- invest, really -- in federal election campaigns.
With their fashionable Lady Justice blindfolds in place, the justices took their legal swings at the piñata of politics. And rather like nine kindergarteners at a birthday party, they left the game's real goodies untouched.
This was not surprising, considering that, like most of Washington's cognoscenti, they couldn't see the reality that was right in front of them about how America really finances its campaigns. McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission is about one narrow facet of campaign finance: Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama engineering firm founder and conservative activist, has challenged the constitutionality of laws that cap the overall amount individuals can spend on all federal campaigns in each two-year election cycle.
Washington used to get all worked up about the need to limit the clout of special-interest money in politics -- especially the need to adopt a system of public financing of campaigns by giving tax money to candidates. But now we don't hear such talk -- because the experts know there's no chance it could happen. Especially since this conservative court has already shown it is all about liberalizing the role special-interest money can play in politics and governance.
But here's the reality: We already have public financing of our political campaigns. In fact, we've had it for years. It's a never-enacted, de facto form of public financing and an insidious waste of tax dollars. Then again, it's rarely been detected, let alone understood, by the practitioners of politics or most of their journalistic chroniclers.
Here, step by step, is how our de facto system of public financing has been working.
1. Politicians dial for dollars, asking special-interest lobbyists to give money to their campaigns. Especially, incumbent members of Congress call the lobbyists whose special interests are regulated by the congressional committees on which the senators and representatives serve.
2. At the other end of the phone and funnel, the lobbyists want access, and potentially favors, from the senators and representatives whose committees oversee the fate of their special interest, whether it's big business or big labor. So the lobbyists make a major investment in the member's re-election. (Note: Most Washington players use the wrong words: "contributions" or "donations." But this political money is being spent for profitable, not charitable, purposes. It's an investment, made by someone in business to make profits.)
3. Well after the election, the lobbyist asks the now-grateful senator or representative to support a little tax loophole, waiver, subsidy, giveaway or regulatory look-the-other-way in a detailed bill that can greatly benefit the lobbyist's special interest. And, lo, it comes to pass.
Bottom line: The lobbyist's special-interest client invests millions in re-electing key members of Congress -- and reaps billions in profits. Those profits, of course, are funds that the client otherwise would pay in taxes and fees to the U.S. Treasury.
We haven't gotten into whether the tax money that becomes special-interest profit is spent in the public interest. Nor have we delved into whether it's such a fine public-spirited idea that it would happen even if the special interest didn't first invest in an incumbent's campaign.
We do know that, from the perspective of the special interest, it's a great business decision to invest millions in politics and reap billions in profits.
But strictly from the bottom-line perspective of the public interest, it would be more profitable to simply invest millions of tax dollars in the campaigns of all qualifying candidates. And retain in the U.S. Treasury the billions we may be spending unwisely on tax loopholes, waivers, subsidies, giveaways and regulatory look-the-other-ways.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)