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Let loose the purse strings
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With its members holding lifetime tenure and sheltered from elections and polls, the Supreme Court has the capacity to structure the politics of the other two branches. It did so in 2000, when it settled the electoral standoff between Al Gore Jr., and George W. Bush. It did so in 2010, when it permitted corporations and nonprofit organizations to make unlimited "independent expenditures." And it did so again Wednesday.
This latest decision, which threw out a $123,200 limit on contributions to federal candidates and political parties over a two-year election cycle, threw American politics into upheaval and altered the landscape for this fall's elections.
The high court's decision buttressed two important trends. It chipped away at campaign-finance laws that since the mid-1970s had sought to restrict the influence of big money on American political campaigns. And it affirmed the notion that political contributions are a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.
We are gravitating toward a politics of a nearly unfettered flow of money into the major parties, accompanied by a nearly unfettered influence on politics of the lobbyists who are both instruments of big money and distributors of it.
In pre-20th century terms, this means the likely re-emergence of party-aligned power brokers like Mark Hanna, who bankrolled Republican President William McKinley (in office 1897-1901) and also served himself in the Senate (1897-1904). In more modern terms, it also means the sustained and perhaps enhanced power of organized labor over Democratic politicians and of large business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers over Republicans.
There likely will be a new Niagara of money flowing into this year's 36 gubernatorial races, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the states.
Money will flood into the 435 House races, too, as well as the 33 Senate races.
One of the campaign-finance caps that remains -- the ban on giving more than $5,200 to a single candidate during the two-year election cycle -- is almost meaningless on a national scale. Now big donors can direct their contributions to all candidates coast to coast or contribute to the national parties, permitting the parties in turn to distribute the money where it would be most effective.
Nobody can accurately predict how this Supreme Court decision will reconfigure American politics, just as no one thought the post-Watergate laws would create political action committees that would come to dominate the politics that followed.
Supreme Court decisions are sometimes like rafts on a river. You think they are drifting in one direction -- and then ripples and rapids change their course entirely.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (