If money equals free speech, tell us who’s talking

When postal worker Doug Hughes — otherwise known as the gyrocopter dude — landed his gizmo on the West Lawn of the Capitol, he wasn’t worried about being shot down, he says.

He must be a believer in miracles because he might have been shot down — and probably should have been. Horrible as this would have been in retrospect, he could as easily have been carrying a dirty bomb as 535 letters to members of Congress.

Setting aside for now the debate about security, let’s turn our attention to his proclaimed mission of shining a light on our corrupt campaign finance system and his urgent plea for reform.

We tried that, Mr. Hughes, and it created an even bigger mess.

Today’s salient political adage goes like this: Behind every successful politician is a billionaire — or several.

Most everyone running for president — that would be Hillary Clinton and perhaps 19 others — will likely be asked about this travesty, but Clinton already has made transparency a key issue in her campaign. What rich cake. The former secretary of state who purged her private server of 30,000 “personal” emails — and who is otherwise known as one of the least transparent politicians in American history — promises campaign transparency.

This tells us two things: Transparency polled well in focus groups; Clinton is adept in the art of political jujitsu.

Campaign finance reform is indeed on many minds, if only in greater America. Beyond the Beltway, people like Doug Hughes choke and spit when talking about politics and politicians. The notion that a few rich people can determine who leads this essential nation is a sour, cynical-making joke that borders on the criminal.

There’s nothing free about paid-for elections — unless everybody knows where the money came from. Ever since the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, generally known as “McCain-Feingold,” our two-party system has been on life support. If in pre-reform America, too many wealthy people were donating large sums to candidates, at least we usually knew who they were. In post-reform America, too many are still giving large donations — but in the shadows.

As one philanthropist put it to me, “Money will always find a way.”

And so it has, which usually puts people in mind of The Koch Brothers, who inarguably have earned their own definite article. Contrary to public perception, TKB aren’t just two rich guys. More aptly, TKB is a political bank into which many other wealthy people deposit large sums to be spent wisely.

And though Democrats and liberals love to demonize the Kochs, non-transparency and mega-bucks are hardly unique to Republicans. The Clinton machine raises money like no other, from Wall Street to Hollywood to, who knows, Chipotle? It will be fun to see that list!

But billionaire backers, much as we’d all love to have one, bring troubles. Among them is the fact that an endowed candidate who hasn’t a chance of winning can remain in the race far longer than his candidacy warrants. This leads to the sort of death by a thousand insults we witnessed in 2012 when Republican candidates seriously damaged Mitt Romney before Democrats got their aim straight.

Additionally, as outside groups gain dominance, political parties are withering. This spells doom for political comity. As much as we enjoy taking sides, the parties themselves have to meet in the middle within their own organization. Super PACs, which tend to form around extreme ideas and whose donors get to remain anonymous, are accountable to no one.

Graver still, mega-donors rob candidates of control over their own campaigns. In effect, campaign finance reform took away the message from the messenger. Who really is calling the shots, nobody knows. Hint: It’s not just the Kochs.

Hughes may have been irresponsible and “off” when he flew his crazy bird into restricted airspace, and he’s lucky to be alive. But he was also exercising his right to free speech — transparent to within an inch of his life.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spoke to this idea during oral arguments in 2010’s Doe vs. Reed, saying that it takes a certain amount of “civic courage” to run a democracy. With his remarks, Scalia provided a glimpse at what would be the best system: Let anyone give as much as he wants to whomever he wants — but out in the open.

It takes courage to stand where you put your money. Or to deliver your letter to the U.S. Congress in person.

See Mr. Hughes? Your stunt worked.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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