Hands Out


A neighbor stopped out front the other day to share the latest outrage. He had seen that our congressman and those from two adjoining districts would be meeting constituents at a public building in our town. A nice show of bipartisanship, he thought, since one of the three is a Democrat, and a good opportunity to ask some questions . When he called to reserve a spot for his wife and himself, he learned it would cost them 90 bucks to attend. My neighbor, a retired civil servant, finds this appalling. I agree with him. Still, look at it from the congressmen’s point of view. People pay them real money for real access. What sort of example does it set if you give away for nothing even the negligible sort of access my neighbor sought?

It’s easy to be appalled but hard to be shocked by this sort of thinking anymore. One thing the 99 Percenters and the Tea Partiers agree on is that Congress no longer works for people like my neighbor, if it ever did. Forget the intricacies of how members raise their money or where it comes from; just look at how Congress treats the defense industry, the banks, the insurance business, Big Oil, the drug companies … you complete the list. The outcomes define the inputs. And it’s hard to feel much better about the executive branch. Who has been punished for the depravities of the 2008 financial collapse? How, after the BP disaster, can we consider drilling for oil off Alaska? How many swords have been beaten into ploughshares?

That leaves one branch of government where money doesn’t talk, right? However you feel about the Supreme Court of late, however much you suspect that the majority there has sacrificed jurisprudence to ideology, however cataclysmic you consider the Citizens United decision allowing the expenditure of unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns, surely nobody thinks that anyone bought that decision. At least the justices are not elected, and it’s impossible to contemplate that the brown-paper-bag sort of corruption, in contrast to the sort we call political fundraising, is at work in the chambers of the highest court. Look at courts a little lower, though, as Lincoln Caplan does in “Justice for Sale.” Caplan, who writes about the justice system for The New York Times, explores the effect of money on the many judges who are elected in this country—judges in 38 states. He focuses on Wisconsin, where judges in the majority on its elected supreme court now refuse to recuse themselves in cases involving parties from whom they have accepted money, often lots of money, because that would disenfranchise the voters. Astonishing. And if you think Citizens United’s worst effect is what it is doing to presidential politics, think again. In states that have attempted to limit contributions in judicial elections, the limits are now off. Corporations can buy as many judges as they want.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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