By Wiha Powell
The floodgates were opened in the 2010 case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC). In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that, “Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means, including ads, especially where these ads were not broadcast.” This ruling allowed an unlimited amount of corporate funding in elections while it lessened the little power that Americans have in the democratic process.
However, it seems Citizens United was just the tip of the iceberg. On October 8, 2013, the Supreme Court heard arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC. This new case seeks to overturn aggregate limits for political donations in federal elections. Currently federal laws impose base and aggregate limits on the amount an individual may give to a single candidate, party or political action committee (PAC). According to the FEC, an individual has a biennial limit of $123,200 total contributions to federal candidates and federal political committees combined. Of that amount, an individual may contribute no more than $48,600 to candidates and no more than $74,600 to all PACs and parties.
One of the key arguments of McCutcheon is that the current limits on contributions represent a limitation on speech. This falls under the “money equals speech” doctrine, where the richest in our society are able to buy outsize influence in the government. If the Supreme Court were to strike down the current limits, it would mean that an individual could donate millions of dollar in a single election cycle. Such a ruling would open the door for legalized corruption and ultimately diminish the voices of ordinary Americans.
Historically speaking, campaign-finance laws have been undermined by new and innovative workarounds as corporations come up with ways to avoid these laws. Today, money in politics is spiraling out of control and turning the democratic process into a financial arms race. Political priorities appear to be out of step with the interests of everyday Americans.
It is true that no campaign-finance system is perfect. Whether the system is deregulated, regulated, or somewhere in-between, money can always be a corrupting influence. However, McCutcheon is trying to put forth a system that allows wealthy corporations and individuals to drown out the public’s voice by ensuring unequal access to and influence over elected officials. Limiting contributions does not limit free speech. However, not having a limitation will undermine the integrity of our system of representative democracy.
In waiting for McCutcheon, will the Court invalidate campaign-financing laws further than it did in Citizens United?