Martin Dyckman: Supreme Court chief justice says you have to pay to play

 In one of those eerie coincidences that make a point, Charles H. Keating Jr. died just two days before the U.S. Supreme Court’s radical majority subverted the nation once again in its hideous McCutcheon decision.

For those who don’t know or who choose –like the Congress and the court — to forget, Keating personified what’s wrong with the court’s favoritism toward money in politics.

Keating enlisted five senators to whom he had contributed lavishly to intercede with federal regulators while he ran his California-based Lincoln Savings & Loan like a personal piggy bank.

Its collapse alone accounted for $3.4 billion of the $124 billion that it cost taxpayers to bail out the savings and loan industry a quarter-century ago. Thousands of his depositors lost their life savings.

Keating went to prison for it. The Senate Ethics Committee found that Senators Alan Cranston, Dennis DeConcini and Donald W. Riegle Jr. had interfered with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. It cleared Senators John Glenn and John McCain but criticized them for “poor judgment” in making contacts on Keating’s behalf.

McCain, the only one of the “Keating Five” still in Congress, applied the lesson to the cause of campaign finance reform.

McCutcheon won’t be the court’s last word on that. Unlimited gifts to individual candidates likely will follow.

Unlike McCain, Keating never repented. When asked whether he thought his money had bought influence, he replied, “I want to say in the most forceful way I can: I certainly hope so.”

The folk wisdom that money is the root of all evil is nowhere truer than in politics. It works its harm in two ways.

–Paid speech, to which the Gang of Five is so perversely devoted, crowds out free speech. To be heard in politics now requires being able to pay for it.

An example typical of many was State Sen. W. D. Childers’ last campaign in 1996. Though no one thought he could possibly lose, he squeezed more than $700,000 out of the lobbies to tie up virtually all of the Panhandle district’s TV time and discourage any effective opposition. He got 75 percent of the votes at nearly $7 a vote. His opponent had to make do with $20,000.

–It’s never out of the minds of those who are elected how much direct or indirect money they’ll need to stay in office. Nearly every major policy decision — whether on taxes, the environment, national defense, or health care owes to that concern.

A particularly notorious and effective Democratic fund-raiser was Rep. Tony Coelho of Rhode Island. Denying in an interview that he sold influence, he remarked, “I sell access.”

As if there were a difference.

The corporate lobbyists get the access, the private dinners, the rounds of golf. You and I get a franked form letter.

The people with access persuaded Congress to deregulate the commercial banking industry despite the lessons of the Great Depression and the savings and loan meltdown. No one heard from or thought of the millions without access.

The bankers who ruined the economy are raking in huge bonuses once again while the people without access are mourning their lost jobs, homes and financial security.

The free marketplace of ideas so dear to five justices exists only in their minds.

Ordinary citizens don’t have the organization or the means to compete against the highly efficient, heavily funded and commercially motivated industry lobbies. The labor unions are no longer the balancing force they used to be.

The most sickening aspect of the McCutcheon decision is that equality is irrelevant to the court’s Gang of Five.

Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion acknowledged this in starkly cynical terms.

“In a series of cases over the past 40 years, we have spelled out how to draw the constitutional line between the permissible goal of avoiding corruption in the political process and the impermissible desire simply to limit polit­ical speech. We have said that government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford.

“Ingratiation and access . . . are not corruption,” he emphasized, quoting from the deplorable Citizens United case four years ago. “They embody a central feature of democracy — that constituents support candidates who share their beliefs and interests, and candidates who are elected can be expected to be respon­sive to those concerns.”

In plain language, fellow citizens, the chief justice is telling you that your vote isn’t enough; you must pay to play.

That’s what Charles Keating thought too.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives at Waynesville, NC. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Martin Dyckman



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