Do you consider the United States of America to be a nation of corrupt public figures, of persons willing to bribe public servants for relevant favors? What represents bribery, corrupt practices or personal favors from public servants? Do we as a nation, through our political leaders, have the right to criticize other nations or public figures as being corrupt and, therefore, somewhat less than the “good nations” of the world?
Within the past two years, the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled on such matters for corporations, unions and private persons (collectively or individually) using a particularly defined behavior known as ‘bribery’. Adherents to liberal, conservative, libertarian and progressive political ideologies react to the specific rulings of Citizens United and McCutcheon in different, mostly opposed manners. Citizens United stuck down federal legislation that limited the amounts that collective entities, such as corporations, labor unions, political action committees, can donate to political campaigns on any given issue or in support of particular candidates (up to $2,600) without restriction by the federal government’s Fair Elections Campaign Act (FECA).
In the very recent ruling McCutcheon, the Supreme Court eliminated all restrictions, except for bribery, on individuals’ donations to political campaign committees, political parties and individual candidates (up to $2,600). These two rulings effectively eliminated the primary controls on perceived election influencing that FECA attempted to establish. Dissenting from the Court’s majority, Justice Breyer criticized this laissez-faire ruling as using too narrow a criterion of corruption: the quid pro quo basic element of ‘bribery’. In essence, a quid pro quo donation, gift or facilitation of process alters the behavior of the recipient in favor of the giver. For example, a defense contractor pays a Department of Defense equipment purchaser to buy only from that contractor. Whether the outcome is beneficial to the cost of materials or to the speed of delivery to the government is irrelevant. The use of a bribe to create the business transaction is the crime, the instance of corruption within purchasing procedures.
Suppose a different situation arises and is put to the test of corruption versus free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. This situation concerns elections, political manipulation for ideological reasons, and donations of vast amounts of money in a planned strategy to achieve a given electoral result. Given the two Supreme Court rulings and the legal limit of $2,600 donation by an individual to a particular candidate, how do the rules change enable corruption in a broader sense?
Joyce Doe has a personal wealth estimated at $12 billion of which $800 million is in fairly liquid assets. Jon Smythe, the chairperson of the National Republican Party approaches Joyce with a proposition to become part of a national strategy for electing Republicans to state legislatures, to contested seats in the House of Representatives, and to the Senate of the United States. John knows that Joyce has favored libertarian candidates in the past and sees her best interests in minimizing federal regulation of the internet and net-based companies.
John first lists the state legislatures where Republicans have lost control or have only a slim hold on their majority status, such as California and Idaho. Not only does John want Joyce to contribute $2,600 to 12 candidates in those states, he wants her to donate $2.5 million to a Political Action Committee (PAC) that is attempting to undermine any expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act of 2010. The total bill for the local state effort would be $31,200 to individual candidates and $5 million for undermining the ACA.
Next, John proposes to expand the donations from Joyce to encompass anti-immigration issues, tiered access to the internet as a competitive environment and the start-up costs of the ACA for small businesses and negative effects on access to care in rural areas of the country. Joyce agrees that these issues are important to her and to her businesses, so she will donate funds for media campaigns in print, on television and for “infodocumentaries" for airing on conservative radio and television stations around the country. No particular dollar amount is given to Joyce, though she understands that some donations may be considerable.
John emphasizes that Joyce’s donations will be commingled with those of other, major donors to avoid any negative publicity from her donations other than to specific political candidates.
Is Jon Smythe’s strategy for major donors corruption? There could be an implicit quid pro quo for candidates receiving election funding to vote according to the wishes of Joyce and her companion donors. Yet, who is to say that the legislator is only voting according to his or her campaign promises? Does it matter if the opposition’s candidate cannot compete for campaign funding on a level of Joyce’s candidates? Probably not, at least in the terms established as First Amendment rights by the Supreme Court.
Among the implications of First Citizens and McClutcheon for the 2014 and 2016 elections will be a change in donor strategy for media attempts to sway voters’ opinions one way or another. As for the Presidential election, campaign war chests are already being gathered. The Democratic Party has had the advantage of a sitting President with a known legislative agenda. It also seems likely that Hilary Clinton will run for the nomination, but there are significant ideological and stylistic issues her campaign will have to overcome for her to succeed. The absence of a contender bodes well for her.
The Republican Party’s war chest for 2016 is quite small because the party’s focus is on gaining control of the Senate and solidifying its hold on the House. None of the potential candidates for nomination have shown national appeal nor have any one candidate distinguished himself as electable even within the party itself.
Having mastered the PAC media and ideological attack tactics in the 2012 election of state and federal legislators, the national Republican effort will attempt to demonstrate the weakness of President Obama’s foreign policies, the continued slow recovery from the Great Recession and the crude startup of the ACA’s national registration procedures. Ironically, the role of fact-checking organizations will gain increasing importance as the media offenses attempt to present factoids and partial truths in support of all ideological solutions to governing the nation.