High Court lets Romney stay on the money train

The partisan-oriented ruling faction of the U.S. Supreme Court took a chance to undo its Citizens United ruling and flung it out to the trash heap.
Crosscut archive image.

Chief Justice John Roberts

The partisan-oriented ruling faction of the U.S. Supreme Court took a chance to undo its Citizens United ruling and flung it out to the trash heap.

Mitt Romney had a cookout for about 800 of the wealthiest Americans over the weekend, and you can bet several toasts were raised to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Republican majority and the infamous Citizens United decision allowing unfettered cash donations to political candidates.

As if to drive the stake into the heart of campaign-finance regulation, the following day (Monday, June 25) the court’s five-justice ruling bloc reaffirmed Citizens by summarily dismissing a case from Montana that would have allowed the court to reconsider what has to be one of the worst decisions for the nation’s democratic system since women and minorities were prevented from voting.

Public attention this week is focused on the High Court’s health-care ruling, expected on Thursday; like an employer delivering “pink slips” on Friday afternoon, the court will announce its ruling on the last day of the term and then get out of Dodge.

Citizens United will, in the long run, better define this court than any ruling it makes on health care, immigration, or any other subject. Citizens United is empowering the buying of the White House, and perhaps Congress, for years to come.

Cases in point (among many): Citizen Romney’s private barbecue this past weekend at a pricey Utah resort; and the continuing largesse poured into presidential politics already this year by Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, money covered with the inevitable sleaze of professional gambling.

Romney’s cookout was closed to media (of course) but The Washington Post’s Phillip Rucker talked to enough high-rollers to get the picture. Rucker came up with the figure of 800 guests, “who each contributed $50,000 or raised at least $100,000 for the campaign.” The Campaign Finance Institute has noted that 60 percent of Romney’s money in the primaries came from these folks who gave the maximum legal amount of $2,500.

Few of the 800 were likely to have been from Washington state, where President Barack Obama still has a lead with the high-tech crowd. But as The Seattle Times reported, that advantage in our state is a “pittance compared with the big money being hauled in by the so-called Super PACs that can spend unlimited amounts on a candidate’s behalf.”

The Super PACs and so-called nonprofit organizations, which serve as a cover for massive contributions that are not legally required to be disclosed, will give Romney and Republicans a monetary advantage in this campaign that will dwarf any previous election cycle.

Citizens United opened the doors for both methods of unlimited donations. The upcoming nomination of Mitt Romney completes the perfect storm.

Romney is in every way one of the wealthy elite; fellow members of the club are comfortable with him in ways they never were with any Republican nominee in recent history, including both Bushes, Ronald Reagan, and John McCain.

Rucker, in the Post, found an Idaho entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Travis B. Hawkes, to sum up the affinity for Romney. "[Hawkes] said Romney, unlike past presidents, ‘knows what it’s like to lay awake at night worrying about your cash flow and meeting payroll.' " One assumes that side of the presidential job will be jobbed out to the folks at the weekend barbecue or, more likely, their minions. Other jobs such as worrying about poor, uneducated, and sick Americans without health care, not to mention wars and climate change, might require other skills.

Romney will not need to worry about money as he moves ahead toward the GOP convention and fall campaigning. He likes Citizens United, and so do most top Republicans in Congress. Sen. Mitch McConnell filed a brief urging the Supreme Court not to hear the Montana case, and he cited Monday’s ruling as a victory for free speech.

Sen. John McCain broke from the GOP pack when Citizens United was handed down; he had written some of the overturned federal laws. McCain, in a blunt and angry denunciation of Citizens United, recently told the PBS News Hour’s Judy Woodruff the decision was “the most misguided, naive, uninformed, egregious decision of the United States Supreme Court I think in the 21st century.” McCain noted that none of the justices “had ever run for sheriff” or anything else, giving them an unrealistic view of the role of money in politics.

The enormous wealth projected at the Romney barbecue is only the tip of the Citizens United iceberg — the elite 800 were honored for giving or “bundling” others’ gifts under the legal limits for individuals giving to a candidate. Many, perhaps most, of them will also give to the (also legal) Super-PACs and “nonprofits” that will rake in the majority of the money for Romney this year. But we may never know how much they give because of the anonymity of some of the donations.

We know about Sheldon Adelson, who has become a poster boy of sorts for Citizens United. We know he single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich in the GOP race by putting $21.5 million into a Super-Pac supporting Gingrich. When the former Speaker tanked, Adelson began moving his money to Romney.

More than other donors, Adelson raises a concern that Obama expressed in his 2010 State of the Union speech, that of foreign cash illegally coming into U.S. campaigns without disclosure. Much of his money reportedly comes from gambling operations in Macau. The president, with members of the court in attendance, denounced the decision, stating in the speech, "Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities." Justice Samuel Alito, who voted in the majority, was caught by camera mouthing, “Not true.”

Without disclosure we won’t know, of course, whether Alito or Obama is correct. But Monday’s ruling in the Montana case tells us Alito and his four allies are not about to take another look at Citizens. A Romney victory in November could result in a heavier court majority for big money, particularly if Sen. McConnell becomes majority leader.

Obama in January 2010 didn’t have Sheldon Adelson in mind when he issued his warning, but Adelson represents all that is dangerous about Citizens United.

Even the better-known Koch brothers (oil magnates Charles and David), traditional funders of conservative causes, have not made the impact Adelson is making this year. Nicholas Confessore of the New York Times writes that Adelson and his wife have given “at least $35 million to pro-Republican super PACs during the 2012 campaign, along with several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of $2,500 checks directly to federal candidates. That is more than twice as much money as the closest competitors for the title, the conservative Texas billionaire Harold C. Simmons and his wife, Annette, making Mr. Adelson a uniquely powerful force in the annals of presidential politics.”

In an extensive examination of Adelson’s giving, Peter H. Stone in Huffington Post projects Adelson will spend at least $71 million on Romney and GOP congressional candidates. “Adelson and his wife, Miriam, along with other family donations, have already reached $36 million, including $10 million to the Romney-backing super PAC Restore Our Future,” Stone wrote. “But two GOP fundraisers familiar with his plans say that Adelson has given or pledged at least $35 million more to three conservative nonprofit groups: the Karl Rove-linked Crossroads GPS, another with ties to billionaires Charles and David Koch and a third with links to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).”

Adelson’s stake in Las Vegas Sands is dwarfed by his interests in Macau, the “special administrative district” of China and home to the most aggressive and profitable gambling interests in Asia. Adelson is the biggest player in Macau and, according to Evan Osmos in The New Yorker, he is forced to deal with the intricate corruption of Chinese politicians, criminal enterprises, and smugglers.

“For Adelson and his peers, doing business in Macau is turning out to be opaque and intricate in ways outside their control. They expected to take the strategies that had brought them success in the United States and apply them to Macau. Instead, their corporate fortunes now hinge in part on the decisions of the Communist Party and corrupt officials and Chinese triads,” Osmos writes.

Osmos also reports:

The United States government has come to believe that the cash changing hands on the tables in Macau is only a small part of the picture. “The growth of gambling in Macau, fuelled by money from mainland Chinese gamblers and the growth of U.S.-owned casinos, has been accompanied by widespread corruption, organized crime, and money laundering,” according to the 2011 annual report by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

What does Adelson hope to gain by buying the White House, and could it have anything to do with pleasing Chinese moneymen in Macau? Could Chinese money be channeled through Adelson into American campaigns? We will probably never know, although two federal agencies — the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission — have opened investigations under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, reacting to a charge that Adelson bribed a Chinese legislator, an accusation Adelson denies.

What we do know is that foreign policy is important to Adelson, although his most active concern is Israel and assuring that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies are supported in this country. Adelson believes Obama is not sufficiently supportive of Israel. He makes up an interesting triangle with Netanyahu and Mitt Romney. The latter two are close friends from post-university business associations, and have conferred on foreign policy. Could Adelson channel funds from right-wing forces in Israel into the funds he contributes to Romney or to other federal candidates? Again, we will probably never know.

Adelson, the Koch brothers, and Karl Rove have become expert at working the system created by the Republican majority on the court. The justices first declared that corporations are people — overturning decades of decisions to the contrary — then declared that people (now including corporations) could spend as much as they wish to support candidates, and if that funding is channeled through organizations that declare themselves to be nonprofit educational forums their contributions need not be reported. In one fell swoop the way was cleared for millions to be spent by corporations to favor those who favor them, and the money is hidden behind a phony nonprofit shield.

The legendary journalist and historian Theodore White broke new ground for coverage of campaigns with his 1960 book, The Making of the President 1960, a detailed examination of the campaign’s maneuvering and personalities. Were the sainted Teddy around today he would doubtless title his book, The Buying of the President 2012.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.