In the wake of the Citizens United v FEC decision by the Supreme Court, Democrats in Congress have pledged legislative action to restore the rejected components of the McCain-Feingold legislation, claiming that they have a mission to stop corporate influence on elections. Some have suggested amending the Constitution to limit the First Amendment. However, as the New York Times reports today, one select group of Democrats have had no problem cultivating corporate influence, and doing so by working around the McCain-Feingold restrictions their party claims to champion:
When the Congressional Black Caucus wanted to pay off the mortgage on its foundation’s stately 1930s redbrick headquarters on Embassy Row, it turned to a familiar roster of friends: corporate backers like Wal-Mart, AT&T, General Motors, Coca-Cola and Altria, the nation’s largest tobacco company.
Soon enough, in 2008, a jazz band was playing at what amounted to a mortgage-burning party for the $4 million town house.
Most political groups in Washington would have been barred by law from accepting that kind of direct aid from corporations. But by taking advantage of political finance laws, the caucus has built a fund-raising juggernaut unlike anything else in town.
It has a traditional political fund-raising arm subject to federal rules. But it also has a network of nonprofit groups and charities that allow it to collect unlimited amounts of money from corporations and labor unions.
From 2004 to 2008, the Congressional Black Caucus’s political and charitable wings took in at least $55 million in corporate and union contributions, according to an analysis by The New York Times, an impressive amount even by the standards of a Washington awash in cash. Only $1 million of that went to the caucus’s political action committee; the rest poured into the largely unregulated nonprofit network. (Data for 2009 is not available.)
Now, consider that $55 million in light of the outrage expressed over the last few weeks over the court’s Citizens United decision. Here’s Barack Obama, scolding the court during the State of the Union speech:
Open the floodgates for corporations? Spend without limit? Bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests? Maybe Congress should first pass a bill that stops members of Congress from shaking down corporations to pay off mortgages. The CBC has spent the windfall on annual casino outings, big Beltway parties, golf trips, and more. In one instance, they held a fundraiser for scholarships and spent more on the caterer than they did on funding education.
Where did the rest of the $54 million go over the past five years? It went to establishing Congressional incumbents into a power network that illegitimately handicaps challengers in Congressional elections. And what let them do it? The campaign finance laws that Democrats insist were blocking corporate influence before Citizens United.
We don’t need limitations on free speech. We need limitations on the free lunch that incumbents get in Washington, and the McCain-Feingold bill should be the first thing to go.