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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

WASHINGTON — An oligarchy, Webster’s dictionary tells us, is “a form of government in which the ruling power belongs to a few persons.” It’s a shame that the Republican majority on the Supreme Court doesn’t know the difference between an oligarchy and a democratic republic.

Yes, I said “the Republican majority,” violating a nicety based on the pretense that when people reach the high court, they forget their party allegiance. We need to stop peddling this fiction.

On cases involving the right of Americans to vote and the ability of a very small number of very rich people to exercise unlimited influence on the political process, Chief Justice John Roberts and his four allies always side with the wealthy, the powerful and the forces that would advance the political party that put them on the Court. The ideological overreach that is wrecking our politics is now also wrecking our jurisprudence.

The Court’s latest ruling in McCutcheon et al. v. Federal Election Commission should not be seen in isolation. (The “et al.,” by the way, refers to the Republican National Committee.) It is yet another act of judicial usurpation by five justices who treat the elected branches of our government with contempt, and precedent as meaningless. If Congress tries to contain the power of the rich, the Roberts Court will slap it in the face. And if Congress tries to guarantee the voting rights of minorities, the Roberts Court will slap it in the face again.

Notice how these actions work in tandem to make the wealthy more powerful and those who have suffered oppression and discrimination less powerful. You don’t need much imagination to see who benefits from what the Court is doing.

Roberts’ McCutcheon ruling obliterates long-standing rules that limit the aggregate amounts of money the super-rich can contribute to various political candidates and committees in any one election cycle. In 2012, individuals could give no more than a total of $70,800 to all political committees and no more than $46,200 to all candidates.

The rule is based on a political reality Roberts sweeps aside with faux naivete: Access and power come not just from relationships with individual members of Congress but from strong links to party leaders and party structures. Someone who helps a party keep its majority by contributing to 200 or 300 candidates and Lord knows how many political committees will have a lot more power than you will if you make a $25 contribution in a congressional race.

Roberts writes as if he is defending the First Amendment rights of all of us. But how many people are really empowered by this decision? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 1,715 donors gave the maximum amount to party committees in 2012, and 591 gave the maximum amount to federal candidates. The current estimate of the population of the United States stands at over 317 million.

Those using the word “oligarchy” to describe the political regime the Supreme Court is creating are not doing so lightly. Combine McCutcheon with the decision in the Citizens United case and you can see that the Court is systematically transferring more power to a tiny, privileged sliver of our people.

I keep emphasizing the word “power” because the Roberts decision pretends that the concept is as distant from this issue as Pluto is from Earth. The philosopher Michael Walzer, in his book Spheres of Justice, made the essential distinction: “Freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly: none of these require money payments; none of them are available at auction; they are simply guaranteed to every citizen. … Quick access to large audiences is expensive, but that is another matter, not of freedom itself but of influence and power.”

In his McCutcheon opinion, Roberts piously declares: “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” This lovely commitment escaped him entirely last summer when he and his allies threw out Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Suddenly, efforts to protect the right of minorities “to participate in electing our political leaders” took second place behind all manner of worries about how Congress had constructed the law. The decision unleashed a frenzy in Republican-controlled states to pass laws that make it harder for African-Americans, Latinos and poor people to vote.

Thus has this Court conferred on wealthy people the right to give vast sums of money to politicians while undercutting the rights of millions of citizens to cast a ballot.

Send in the oligarchs.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A Week That Was Disastrous For Trump, Miraculous For Biden

Donald Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes the year he was elected president, according to a blockbuster report published by the New York Times on Sunday.

The Times report also found that Trump is millions of dollars in debt, incurred through a series of failed business ventures — a fact that runs counter to Trump's self-made image as a successful businessman. Trump has also used his financial failings to avoid paying taxes, the report found.

The president has resisted revealing his financial information since the start of his first presidential campaign, despite promising otherwise. "I would certainly show tax returns if it was necessary," Trump told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in 2015. Yet for five years, the president has failed to produce the documents.The president paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016, and paid another $750 in 2017, according to the report. And in 2014, Trump paid zero dollars in taxes.

Conservatives including Trump often suggest that undocumented immigrants take advantages of government services without contributing their fair share. Throughout his first term, Trump has repeatedly cast blame on immigrants and suggested they post an economic burden to U.S. taxpayers.

"Our current immigration system costs America's taxpayers many billions of dollars a year," Trump claimed in 2017 during his first presidential address to Congress.

That claim does not hold up to scrutiny. In reality, undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollars in taxes every year. In 1996, the Internal Revenue Service created a program for non-citizens who work in the U.S. to report their income. Non-citizens who do not have a Social Security Number — including undocumented immigrants — are able to file taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN. According to the IRS, 4.4 million people paid taxes using an ITIN in 2015, totaling $23.6 billion in tax revenue.

This raises the question: why would undocumented immigrants pay U.S. taxes if they are unauthorized to live in the country? Immigrants often choose to pay taxes in order to demonstrate "good moral character" when applying for legal residence or citizenship, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Undocumented immigrants who fail to pay their taxes risk deportation.

"Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, paid an estimated $328 billion in state, federal, and local taxes in 2014 alone," Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell Law School, told the American Independent Foundation. "It is outrageous that the average undocumented immigrant in the United States pays more in federal income taxes than the President did in 2016."

This contrast is especially ironic given Trump's tendency to deride unauthorized immigrants as irresponsible lawbreakers. Trump has a tendency to respond to criticism with projection — when accused, he accuses others of the same thing.

"Yes, undocumented immigrants are helping fund the very system that detain and deport us," journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who is undocumented, tweeted in 2019.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.