The Nonessential Supreme Court and the Threat of Default

If any institution is non-essential by design, it is the Supreme Court. But today it will decide a case that could lead to more shutdowns.

The current default threat flowed from Citizens United, which led to SpeechNOW, which led to SuperPACS threatening moderate republicans and directly supporting Cruz. If the Court today decides to get rid of campaign contribution limits (which it could do in multiple ways), the relationship between Cruz and Thiel or Koch and Boehner, can be even more explicitly clientilistic.

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7 Responses

  1. Jonathan H. Adler says:

    Doesn’t this suggest that if we rolled back the limits on contributions to individual candidates and the limits placed upon the party organizations, we would reduce the impact of SuperPACs and Tea Party groups? After all, isn’t their influence magnified by the fact that it is difficult to support candidates directly and the parties have much less ability to support candidates than they did in the past? I say this, in part, because I think trying to take money out of politics is trying to push water uphill. So long as so much is at stake, so much will be spent.

    (As a side note: The idea that the Kochs have a particular direct influence on Boehner is funny.]

  2. Zephyr Teachout says:


    No, it doesn’t. The way money is allowed/structured influences the total amount spent. After the Tillman act, corporate money dropped to levels a third of that before it, even though the Tillman act was full of loopholes. After the enabling of SuperPACS, the amount of money rose far faster than before it.

    To put it in law and econ terms, the more efficiently one can use money to influence policy, the more money spent.

    The Kochs don’t have a direct influence on Boehner. Their influence is currently very indirect. But if they could spend $3.6 million in contributions the leverage would be more direct.

    Hi Jonathan!


  3. AndyK says:

    ZT: Did the Tillman Act actually change “structures?” I thought it was simply a ban on money from certain types of entities, and that those expenditures simply found other avenues after a grace period.

    In the same way that unless we set up a state-controlled campaign system where Candidate X gets media 1,2, and 3, and Candidate Y gets media 1,2, and 3—-absent a specific list of things and places available for political speech, money will always find its way back in.

    ZT: If you could provide the data you cite regarding the Tillman Act and the century following, that would be great.

  4. Zephyr Teachout says:

    AndyK. See page 120-121

    Depends on what you see as structural, I suppose. What I mean by structural is the reforms that really change incentives, like Tillman, Australian Ballot, etc.

  5. mls says:

    You suggest that the actions of Tea Party Republicans are motivated or enabled by CU and the influence of large donors. Ezra Klein says its exactly the opposite:

    “Here’s an amazing fact: The Chamber of Commerce, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting the Republican Party in the last two elections, completely supports the Democratic Party’s position right now. They’re for a “clean CR” to reopen the government. They want the debt limit raised. They’re even considering spending money to protect business-friendly Republicans from tea party challengers.

    But they’re not being listened to. Nor is the Business Roundtable. “There is an element of the more independent, tea party coalition Republicans that, frankly, don’t listen to very many people,” John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, told Talking Points Memo. “They are on a mission, often defined on the basis of their view of the world, and they aren’t paying very much attention to what this means beyond maybe their own districts.”

  6. Zephyr Teachout says:

    Its true that the Chamber is on the side of a clean CR. But if you haven’t read this fantastic article, its helpful on explaining the money behind it:

    The shutdown money doesn’t have to reach everyone, of course, or even outspend the Chamber–it merely needs to reach enough. I would love someone to do a real $$ comparison on both sides, and look at which side is using it as a $$ litmus test. (In other words, would Chamber supported candidates lose support if they joined the tea party position). I found surprising that EK mentions Cruz but not the money behind him, and doesn’t mention SpeechNOW.

  7. Jonathan H. Adler says:

    Hi Zephyr —

    The study you cite doesn’t show the Tillman Act is that significant. The collapse in spending begins well before the Tillman Act is adopted. It also does not account for other ways of spending money to obtain influence, such as lobbying, which may have substituted for the direct contributions.

    But back to the original point, the way money is spent – who gets it and why – surely has a greater effect on the tenor of politics than the absolute volume. Insofar as our laws privilege non-party, non-campaign actors — and enhance their influence vis-a-vis the parties and campaigns — the more we should expect polarization. If candidates and parties can raise more money for campaigns, they have less to fear from SuperPACs and outside groups. If parties can play a larger role, they can encourage team players over mavericks. And so on. Heavily regulating campaigns, while independent groups are largely unregulated, creates a structural imbalance that encourages greater polarization (as does a system in which politicians spend so much time fundraising they have no time to develop relationships outside of their own caucus).

    Bottom line: Whatever concerns you have about the volume of money in politics, if you are concerned about polarization you should be at least as concerned with how the money is spent and who ultimately spends it.

    Hope all’s well.