From a door ajar to an open floodgate
Campaign finance reform dealt devastating blow in 5-4 decision
Any illusion of a government by, for and of the people was put to death Wednesday by five Supreme Court justices. What has been an erosion of campaign finance laws under Chief Justice Roberts' court has quickly become systemic eradication.
The 5-4 decision Wednesday reiterated the common ideological divide in the court with the conservative majority overwhelming the more progressive minority. The case, McCutchen v. Federal Election Committee,brought the issue of limits on individuals' total contributions to federal candidates to the court's attention.
The decision was as polarizing across the bench as it has proven to be across the nation. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, reading the minority dissent from the bench in a rare move symbolizing the court's division, said, "If ... Citizens United opened a door, today's decision may well open a floodgate."
A floodgate of what exactly is worth considering. Money - and the influence it has both on who becomes elected and how he or she behaves in office - will now legally wash away whatever remnants were left of a free and fair democratic process.
Wednesday's ruling is clearly reminiscent of the Citizens Unitedcase in 2010 that opened the door for unlimited political contributions by unions and corporations. Though it kept restrictions on those groups giving directlyto candidates themselves, super PACs (political action committees) created a highway through the loopholes that case opened for contributions to influence politics.
The restrictions Wednesday's ruling overturned limited the amount of money any individual could contribute, in aggregate, to political candidates and parties. The biennial limits were $48,600 for contributions to all federal candidates and $74,600 to political parties.
Now, individuals can donate the maximum amount to as many candidates and parties as they would like, giving wealthy donors far broader influence over all federal races. Campaign finance laws, if not fatally anemic, now have loopholes large enough to drive any number of campaign buses through.
The question remains - how, and why, did we get here? Nearly all are in agreement this is a First Amendment issue, meaning for the court to limit "speech," there must be a compelling reason.
In 1974, following the Watergate scandal, Congress instituted the now-defunct cap restrictions. A 1976 Supreme Court case, Buckley v. Valeo, upheld the notion of contribution caps, sustaining limits on individual contributions as constitutional.
Wednesday's ruling blew a hole through that decision and the notion of corrupting influence in political contributions. Chief Justice Roberts, narrowly defining corruption as of the quid-pro-quo type, saw no issue with eliminating these caps.
This, however, far too narrowly defines corruption. Anyone even somewhat familiar with the way our world works could tell you decisions follow money, whether that money comes in a locked leather suitcase or an excessively generous campaign contribution, and the implied promise for more.
Beyond the role of money in politics, though, this case again shifts power from the working and middle class, formerly protected by political finance laws, to the hands of those who control the most capital.
Breyer aptly captured the issue in the dissent: "Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard."
This decision further limits our speech vis-?-vis the role of money in politics. The decision effectively pushes cash down the throat of political process in this country, choking out the voice of the public and suffocating whatever vestiges of democracy were left in the United States.
The trend toward concentrating power in the hands of those privileged to control vast swaths of capital is continuing unabated. This is still a government of, for and by the people, as long as those people pay to play.