By Jim Hagerty
The United States Supreme Court Wednesday, April 2, in its decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, may have sealed a deal to forever lose democracy as America knows it to the annals of political history.
The 5-4 landmark decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, found that limits on the total amount of money donors can give to all federal candidates, committees and political parties are unconstitutional.
“The government has a strong interest, no less critical to our democratic system, in combating corruption and its appearance,” Roberts wrote. “We have, however, held that this interest must be limited to a specific kind of corruption — quid pro quo corruption — in order to ensure that the government’s efforts do not have the effect of restricting the First Amendment right of citizens to choose who shall govern them.”
Base limits on what may be contributed to individual campaigns remained intact.
However, the McCutcheon decision, just ahead of November’s midterm elections, is turning up the heat as both sides debate on the role mountains of cash play in federal politics.
While McCutcheon has refueled the debate, big money has been a longstanding pink elephant in the room.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has been challenging big money in politics for several years, noting that the banking industry, despite a crumbling economy, still has the most powerful lobby in Washington. After McCutcheon, there will certainly be more seats at the table.
“The Supreme Court once again has sold American elections to highest bidder,” Durbin said. “This decision may be more good news for American oligarchs, but it is bad news for voters. We have to move away from the wild west of deep corporate pockets and special interest war chests and focus on creating a fair elections system that allows mere mortals, without million-dollar bank accounts, to have their voices heard by the candidates that seek to represent them.”
Durbin has also introduced the Fair Elections Now Act, which states that candidates who refuse to accept contributions of more than $150 will be eligible for public financing. The aim is to create more grassroots campaigns instead of just those funded by the usual big-money suspects.
Before McCutcheon, the limit an individual could contribute every two years to a federal candidate was $123,200.
“By striking down the contribution limits, the court embraced a much narrower definition of the justification for limits,” President and CEO of the National Constitution Center Jeffrey Rosin told Diane Rehm April 3. “Basically, it said you could only limit speech to stop corruption, and corruption here was defined as preventing basically trading votes for money. In previous cases, the court had said that a different kind of corruption could be regulated, namely the fact that rich donors would drown out less wealthy individuals in political discourse and also have special access to candidates.”
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer ripped the McCutcheon ruling, saying it fails to protect political integrity necessary for the government to represent the people.
“Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve,” Breyer wrote.
The 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling enabled corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts to influence federal races.
According to Roberts, the McCutcheon argument is simple.
“The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse,” Roberts wrote.
Breyer argued that when money dictates who has the loudest voice, the First Amendment is never heard.
The McCutcheon ruling was sparked by a lawsuit brought by Alabama donor Shaun McCutcheon, who claimed the government should not impose a limit on how many candidates or political parties an individual is allowed to support in any election cycle.
From the April 9-15, 2014 issue