The U.S. Supreme Court this week expanded its destructive equation of political money and political speech. The clear implication is that a small number of Americans with the most money can buy the most speech and have the greatest influence on campaigns and elections, without effective restriction.
It’s now up to Congress to reverse the invitation to corruption and influence-buying that the high court’s profoundly anti-democratic decision creates. But since incumbent lawmakers stand to benefit greatly from the ruling, and the much higher campaign contributions it likely will elicit, don’t hold your breath.
On a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down prudent limits established nearly four decades ago on campaign donations. This week’s ruling is even more damaging than the court’s opinion in the 2010 Citizens United case, which enables corporations and unions to spend whatever they want to influence elections of candidates for national office.
After the Watergate scandal, Congress imposed a ceiling of $123,200 on the total amount of money an individual could give candidates, parties, and political fund-raising committees during a two-year election cycle. The Supreme Court’s decision this week in the McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission case wipes out that hardly-onerous aggregate limit; the majority called it an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.
As a result, an individual now will be able to donate as much as $3.6 million overall to candidates, parties, and committees in an election cycle. Not many people will do that, but the mega-rich hundreds or thousands who do are likely to expect — and get — attention from politicians and parties that tens of millions of other voters won’t receive.
The ruling maintains a limit of $5,200 on an individual’s direct contributions to a specific candidate or committee during an election cycle. But that hardly matters, because party leaders now will be able to shuffle much more of a donor’s money to a particular candidate.
In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., limited his definition of political corruption that government can seek to deter through regulation to overt, illegal bribery. But dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer noted that linking access to elected officials, and influence over their actions, to the size of campaign donations is itself potentially corrupting to “the integrity of our public governmental institutions.”
Opponents of limits on political money argue that the real solution is greater public disclosure of campaign contributions — their amounts, the identity of their donors, and where the money goes. Such transparency is more important than ever in light of this week’s ruling.
Yet Republican senators have blocked action for years on a bill that would expand disclosure of political money. They can’t have it both ways.
Despite his stated allegiance to judicial restraint, Chief Justice Roberts and his court allies have displayed the kind of activism from the bench in their rulings on campaign finance that conservatives routinely condemn in other contexts. On this issue, justices have casually discarded long-standing court precedents.
Congress, if it cares to, can redress the balance between political expression fueled by big money and the principle of fair political access for all citizens that the Supreme Court has dismantled. Otherwise, as Justice Clarence Thomas suggested approvingly this week, the high court’s next logical move is to eliminate limits on political money altogether.