Running for re-election in 1974, Gov. Reubin Askew limited his contributions to $300 per person — no more than $100 for each of the three phases of the campaign.
The law allowed $9,000.
Sen. Lawton Chiles went one better when he ran for re-election in 1976.
He restricted his contributions to $10 a pop, or $30 for the course of the campaign.
Six years later, Chiles grudgingly yielded to new realities and raised the self-imposed limit — to $100. He stuck with it in his gubernatorial campaigns.
Those were the days.
Now, Chiles’ niece, Kay Hagan, has a multi-million dollar price tag on her head as she runs for re-election to the Senate from North Carolina. The Koch Brothers and Karl Rove have already thrown $10 million against her, forcing her to beg for money wherever, whenever she can.
It was merciful, in a sense, that both Florida statesmen died — Chiles in 1998, Askew last month — without witnessing the ultimate damage that the U.S. Supreme Court — or, more precisely, the John Roberts faction — inflicted on the nation Wednesday.
Leaving only in place — for now — a lid on direct contributions to parties and the $5,200 limit on gifts to any one federal candidate’s campaign, the court raised “to the number infinity,” as dissenter Stephen Breyer put it, what wealthy donors can contribute across the board.
So if a Sheldon Adelson or a Donald Trump decides to purchase the entire House instead of just a member or two, he can spread $2.3 million across the board and be confident that Speaker John Boehner will be grateful.
In his “Devil’s Dictionary,” Ambrose Bierce, the Gilded Age satirist, defined the noun “delegation” as an “article of merchandise that comes in sets.” Now, life once again imitates art.
There is no longer any bidding limit on the vast auction block American politics has become since the shining examples of Askew and Chiles, who won despite their self-restraint.
It helped, of course, that both were extremely popular incumbents in 1974 and 1976.
But they also had the comfort of knowing that no one could seriously outspend them. State and federal law at the time set reasonable limits on every campaign’s spending.
The beginning of the end of that age of enlightenment came in 1976, mid-campaign, when the court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that campaign spending was just another form of speech protected by the First Amendment.
More frightful damage came in 2010 with the Citizens United atrocity breathing personhood into corporations.
Although Buckley had lifted the lids on spending by candidates, or by others acting “independently,” it conceded the corruptive potential of gifts to candidates and to the parties supporting them. Just as importantly, Buckley also recognized the value of public perception.
But that obviously doesn’t matter to the Gang of Five. They care not how the government looks to anyone other than the Republican Party and what Theodore Roosevelt called the “malefactors of great wealth.”
It’s noteworthy that none of the justices ever held an elected office, must less ran for one. They have no experience with the fear of being outspent or the gratitude felt for donors.
But four dissenters understood that.
The ultimate cynicism of Roberts’ plurality opinion lies at the end, where he stated the government has no proper interest in barring anything but “quid pro quo” corruption. In other words, bribery is protected by the Constitution unless the donor and donee are stupid enough to make it explicit and to get caught at it.
The court’s apologists already are saying that this doesn’t change anything, that it simply lets the wealthy contribute directly — and openly — what they have been giving “independently” since Buckley or through corporate fronts since Citizens United.
Baloney. It makes it much too easy. And it leaves the public with the sickening view that our government is no longer ours.
As a journalist, I’m supposed to be pleased that the Gang of Five puts such a supreme value on the First Amendment.
But I’m a citizen first, and I think John Roberts has just signed a death warrant for our democracy.
No constitutional right is absolute. Each one is in a delicate balance with another. Freedom of speech shouldn’t encourage corruption. Freedom of the press doesn’t let me sit in on jury deliberations or license libel. If I were to state as fact my personal opinions of Roberts and his co-conspirators, they could sue me.
So let’s close with this analogy. It’s only symbolic, understand?
Whorehouses don’t always occupy shabby buildings in seedy neighborhoods.
There’s one made of marble right across the street from our nation’s capitol.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives at Waynesville, North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.