Steve Chapman

The Supreme Court decision killing limits on total donations to political candidates means billionaires will be running amok. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson can lay out astronomical sums to help Republicans. Oilmen Charles and David Koch can see him and raise him. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg can burn through his fortune like a blowtorch.

Oh, wait. They already did all that. Under this ruling, tycoons will have one more relatively modest way of supporting the candidates and causes they like. But trust me: You won't be able to see a difference.

Adelson went through some $100 million in 2012, including $20 million given to a super PAC supporting Mitt Romney. The Koch brothers' creation, Americans for Prosperity, used $33 million trying to defeat Barack Obama. Bloomberg gave $10 million to a super PAC supporting likeminded candidates.

The angry outcry that greets every Supreme Court decision overturning campaign finance regulations seems based on the idea that somehow the money torrent can be turned into a trickle. Critics imagine that rich people can be prevented from using their resources to elect politicians they like or evict ones they don't.

The history of campaign finance says: as if. When Congress blocks off one avenue, millionaires find other routes -- or bulldoze new ones through the wilderness.

After the historic 1974 campaign finance law tightly restricted donations to candidates, political action committees sprang up to give contributors another option. Facing limits on how much they could give to campaigns, some of the wealthy resorted to "independent expenditures," buying ads to help or hurt candidates. Others decided to run for office, since there is no limit on how much candidates can give themselves.

Not that curbing money is such a great idea. If it could be strictly controlled, the main beneficiaries would be incumbents, who are generally better known than challengers and have more ways to get free publicity. Outlawing soft-drink ads would not deprive Coke and Pepsi of market share.

It's hard to see why anyone thinks the regulation struck down by the Supreme Court really mattered. Federal law says you can give a candidate for Congress no more than $2,600 for each primary and $2,600 for each general election. As if that limit were not enough, it also says you can't give more than $48,600 to all candidates in a given year, even if none of the donations exceeds the individual maximum. So Adelson may give $5,200 each to nine candidates, but not 10.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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