Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Bribes Pose as Campaign Contributions Recent Supreme Court Rulings Are Erasing the Line between Donations and Corruption

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Bribes Pose as Campaign Contributions Recent Supreme Court Rulings Are Erasing the Line between Donations and Corruption

Article excerpt

There are three big winners from the recent Supreme Court decisions that Sen. John McCain says might "dismantle entirely" campaign-finance laws: wealthy interests, greedy politicians and investigative journalists.

Wealthy individuals, corporations and unions will spend unlimited sums to affect elections, and rich donors can now give huge amounts to political party committees.

All this cash sloshing around seems certain to produce the mother of all political scandals. Why? It always does.

The initial ban on corporate contributions more than a century ago was in response to bribes; the contemporary reforms grew out of Watergate, when excessive money led to corruption and criminality.

The definition of corruption was hotly debated on the court by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Stephen Breyer. The chief justice, who opposes most campaign-finance restrictions, offered a narrow interpretation: Political corruption is bribery only, a direct exchange of an official act for money.

There are contemporary examples of clear-cut quid pro quo going back to the dairy industry in Watergate and, more recently, involving a congressman caught with cash stashed in his refrigerator. Such cases are rare and almost always stem from a government sting operation or a high-powered prosecutor with subpoena powers.

Justice Breyer takes a much broader view, arguing that the obvious appearance of corruption, not just quid-pro-quo bribery, poisons the political process and public trust. His definition includes "the privileged access to and the pernicious influence upon elected representatives." That, he says, makes campaign-finance limits justified.

Justice Breyer observed that there has been recognition by Congress and, until recently, by the Supreme Court, that this involves a vital governmental interest.

This is one of those not infrequent occasions when the high court could have used Sandra Day O'Connor, the last justice who actually ran for political office and who retired in 2006.

Her opinions and observations might have explained why the court's majority view is out of touch with political reality. …

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