Feature

Campaign finance: Freeing the wealthy to contribute more

In “McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission,” the Supreme Court struck down the limit on how much an individual can donate to political candidates.

“Money talks,” said Paul Campos in Salon.com,and thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, it will speak louder than ever before. In last week’s sharply split, 5–4 McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling, the Supreme Court took another giant step toward gutting the nation’s campaign-finance laws by striking down the overall limits on how much an individual can donate to political candidates and committees per election cycle. As it did in sanctioning unlimited contributions to Super PACs in Citizens United and other previous rulings, the court’s conservative majority equated money with free speech, thus helping “the rich transform what is putatively a democratic republic into an unapologetic plutocracy.” The Roberts court has handed a real gift to the super-rich, said Alec MacGillis in NewRepublic.com. Before McCutcheon, fat-cat contributors were limited to giving federal candidates and party committees a generous collective total of $123,200 in every federal election cycle. Without the aggregate limit, wealthy donors are now liberated to spend up to $3.6 million on their favored party’s entire roster of congressional candidates and party committees. The 646 super-elite donors who maxed out their campaign contributions last year—and who represent just 0.0000019 percent of Americans—will now have even more leverage over who gets elected to Congress, and what policies they favor once they get there.

Don’t blame the Supreme Court, said Rich Lowry in Politico.com. Blame that annoying First Amendment. It guarantees the right to free speech, whether it’s that of The New York Times, flag burners, neo-Nazis, or successful businessmen who “want to participate in democracy.” The government can make no limits on how many hours you can spend volunteering for a campaign, or how many editorials the Times can write in support of Democrats. Similarly, there should be no limits on how much money an individual can spend to promote his views. Besides, the aggregate contribution limits struck down by the court made no sense, said Walter Weber is NationalReview.com. If the maximum $2,600 campaign contributions of Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, the plaintiff in the case, weren’t “corrupting” for the first nine candidates who received them, then how could it suddenly become a “grave problem of democratic legitimacy” if he gave the same amount “to 10, 12, or 30 candidates?”

That all depends on how you define corruption, said Garrett Epps in TheAtlantic.com. Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion in the case, adopted the narrowest definition possible, that of “quid pro quo” corruption—outright bribery along the lines of “I will give you $200,000 to vote for my subsidy.” But look at how several Republican presidential hopefuls, including Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, ran to Las Vegas last week to audition for the financial support of billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson. A politician doesn’t have to be directly bribed to give a wealthy donor’s views far more weight than those of other constituents. Under the court’s absurd rationale, when presidential candidates echo Adelson’s positions—“silly rabbit, that’s not corruption, it’s democracy at work.”

But “there will always be money in politics,” said David Brooks in The New York Times. The aggregate limits served only to push money “to the shadowy world” of billionaire-funded Super PACs like American Crossroads and Restore Our Future, which along with other organizations spent almost $830 million in the 2012 election. Now that the overall cap has been struck down, money can start moving transparently to the political parties themselves, which are more accountable to a broad array of voters and special interests, and “transcend the influence of any one.”

On the surface, McCutcheon is “good news for the GOP,” said Peter Beinart in TheAtlantic.com. Past contributions indicate that the kind of super-rich donors liberated by the ruling are almost twice as likely to be Republicans as they are Democrats. But as Mitt Romney learned in 2012, being identified as the party of the rich doesn’t help you get elected—especially since it turns off the blue-collar voters the GOP desperately needs to win national elections. Trying to limit political spending is both futile and unconstitutional, said Michael Kinsley in WashingtonPost.com. But the power of spending to influence elections “is only as large as we allow it to be.” When a candidate accepts money from “Rich Plutocrats for America,” his opponents should make a very big deal about those contributions, until the money itself becomes an issue. The solution to political speech you hate isn’t to silence it. “It’s more and louder speech of your own.”

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