Money and politics

Things go around and come around, an old saying goes. So it is with a meeting I'll never forget, and one that resonates in the wake of recent Supreme Court decisions. It occurred decades ago when I was on the Common Cause board of directors in the John Gardner era. In the wake of our work on post-Watergate proposed legislation, at one of our meetings in Washington, a fascinating exchange took place between two board members: Max Palevsky and LaDonna Harris, both activists in the real world of politics. Palevsky was so put off by Common Cause's position that conflicted with his central role in financing Sen. Eugene McCarthy's (D-Minn.) presidential campaign that he stood up, spoke passionately about the value of wealthy donors underwriting political campaigns, and resigned, literally taking his bags and walking off. He argued to the board that without the funds which he and his fellow donors provided the McCarthy campaign, it wouldn't have survived.

ADVERTISEMENT
Harris rose and challenged Palevsky's point of view, remarking that her husband Sen. Fred Harris's (D-Okla.) populist presidential campaign was the right model: They only took a maximum of $100 from each donor. Neither McCarthy's nor Harris's presidential campaigns were successful, though the ideals of the candidates were remarkable.

The problem continues with the Supreme Court's recent decisions about campaign financing, and won't go away any time soon. Palevsky and Harris had interesting points to make, and the Obama presidential campaigns proved that small donors were important because they gave citizens without fortunes an interest in politics and democratized the process. Rich people shouldn't own the First Amendment.

They own 99 percent of everything else, so somehow, someway, the political process shouldn't be an auction. We haven't yet found the balance that satisfies the majority of people, but the five justices who decided the recent campaign finance cases ought to defer to legislators who at least have the American people to respond to.

Goldfarb is an attorney, author and literary agent based in Washington, D.C., and Miami. Contact him at rlglawlit@gmail.com.