ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Well, now it's time to talk politics with our Friday regulars, columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. Good to see you both.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.
SIEGEL: It's not every Friday that we get to talk about a change in the rules, in this case, a Supreme Court decision that alters the rules governing campaign contributions. In the McCutcheon versus the Federal Election Commission this week, the court ruled to overturn the overall limit on contributions to candidates for Congress and to party committees. That limit had been $123,200. This was framed by the chief justice as a free speech issue and it was denounced by advocates of campaign reform as another step further empowering the very rich at the expense of ordinary Americans.
First, E.J., I assume you were not pleased by this decision.
DIONNE: I think this is a terrible decision for a number of reasons. It, first of all, it is said that this strengthens the political parties. They didn't need strengthening from this. If you look at when the political parties were strongest in terms of giving money to candidates, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee hit their stride in the era of campaign reform.
Second, it's said, well, at least this money is disclosed. That's a bit like somebody who says to you you're stupid, but at least I'm honest. The Supreme Court had already opened up big loopholes with Citizens United and there's been lax regulation at the FEC so we've created this whole system of dark money and now we're supposed to be grateful that a lot of rich people can give money under the table and over the table.
And the last thing is, a lot of people using the words oligarchy and I think that's an appropriate word. The number of people who hit that limit that you described, all giving to congressional candidates, was 591. So this court has empowered a very tiny number of Americans to exercise even more power than they already have. It's a terrible decision.
SIEGEL: David, you wrote a column about this decision. Two cheers for McCutcheon. Why is this glass even two-thirds full?
BROOKS: Because it points us a little in the right direction. Remember, we've had forty years of campaign finance reform. It's been a complete failure. Politics is more money drenched than ever before. Incumbents are more protected than ever before. And the reason it's a failure is because we've tried to squash money out of parties and that's just driven it underground into more opaque institutions, into more soft money, into more superPACs where the special interests have greater access to the politicians who suck up to them directly.
And so the way out of this mess is not to pretend we're gonna get money out of politics. That is a pipe dream. The way to get out of this mess is to channel the money through institutions that at least have some accountability and the parties have some accountability.
We're down to a point where party giving to Senate candidates is less than 1 percent of direct giving. So the parties are trivial in Senate races and trivial in House races in terms of direct giving. We've got to steer the money back into the parties, which are transparent, which are accountable to voters, which mobilize people. We got to put a buffer between the special interests and the Congress people. And so what this decision does is it does one small step towards strengthening the party.
DIONNE: Most of that is simply untrue. I really think it's sophistry in defense of oligarchy. The parties have plenty of money and plenty of power. I don't know where David gets that 1 percent figure. Second, you cannot blame the current system on campaign finance reform on McCain-Feingold. You can blame the current system on the enabling by the court through Citizens United, not only what it formally did, but also the encouragement it gave to all of this soft money and outside the formal system money. We can have plenty of money in political parties without empowering a very tiny number of rich people even more.
BROOKS: The growth of PACs and the swift-boating of John Kerry, that was all before Citizens United. All the underground money, all the candidates deciding they have to go directly to the special interests to kiss up to them directly, that was way before Citizens United. Citizens United made it worse. No question about that, but it was the whole process. It's based on illusion, an illusion that you can get money out of politics rather than channeling it. And second, let's face it, incumbents wrote these bills to guarantee their own victories and that's exactly...
DIONNE: It sure hasn't worked in a lot of elections for incumbents and the notion that a very tiny number of people giving large amounts of money don't amount to a special interest, I don't get what that definition.
SIEGEL: All right. I'm gonna move us onto another big event this week with potential consequences for the fall elections. On Tuesday, President Obama announced a milestone for the Affordable Care Act.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Last night, the first open enrollment period under this law came to an end. And despite several lost weeks out of the gate because of problems with the website, 7.1 million Americans have now signed up for private insurance plans through these marketplaces.
SIEGEL: Signups met forecasts that a few weeks ago looked hopelessly high. Even so, House Speaker John Boehner was dismissive of that 7.1 million figure.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: The president can go out there and tout about all the people he signed up, but how about the young man that I talked to last week out in California whose premium's doubled and his co-pays and deductibles tripled. And is wife's hours got cut to 29 hours. I can give you hundreds of letters from my constituents who have been harmed by this law.
SIEGEL: E.J., is Obamacare now any less valuable a Republican campaign issue, or any less weighty an albatross for Democrats in close races?
DIONNE: I think it's clearly a less-weighty albatross because you're seeing the numbers around it change. There was one poll that showed it very narrowly - it was only about a point - but favorable - a favorable view of it out - the number of people saying - having a favorable view outnumbering the people with an unfavorable view. And I think people will have to start looking at all the dire, terrible things people have said about Obamacare. When the website collapsed, everyone said this is - oh, not everyone, but certainly Republicans said this is it. This is a flawed system. It's not going to work. And nobody out there expected it to hit this 7 million. According to the L.A. Times, 9.5 million people - and that was before the final numbers were in - got insurance who didn't have it before. It's doing what it's supposed to do. I think it's on a trajectory to become popular eventually. It'll take time.
SIEGEL: David, happily there's no more snow on the ground in Washington at last, so you can stand barefoot in hair shirt for three days. But do you plan some other act of penitence for having been critical of the Affordable Care Act?
BROOKS: Wait a second, wait a second, I'm willing to admit error when I'm wrong, if it happens.
DIONNE: On those rare occasions.
BROOKS: But I never thought that this was the key issue, and you can go back and rewind the tape. So listen, the first thing is you give President Obama credit. They messed up in the beginning. They really did recover, and they recovered well, and this also indicates we have a lot of uninsured people in this country who are now going to get coverage. That's a positive good.
But I think most health care experts say focus on this top line number is a bit overdrawn. We've reached a point where we have a threshold. We've achieved the threshold - well it'll work, that we'll find out.
SIEGEL: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you.
DIONNE: Thank you.
BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.