RNC v. FEC: A Win for Democracy

June 30, 2010

RNC v. FEC: A Win for Democracy

With the General McChrystal saga, World Cup second round, Elena Kagan confirmation hearings, and imminent financial reform all making news before a long holiday weekend, you could be forgiven for missing a seemingly sleepy move by the Supreme Court on the last day of its term. On Tuesday, in a terse, two sentence order, the Court summarily affirmed the lower court’s decision in Republican National Committee v. Federal Election Commission (a.k.a., “RNC v. FEC”), thereby refusing to consider the newest challenge to campaign finance regulations. While this order has not made headlines, it represents a small but important victory for our democratic process.

The RNC case was brought shortly after the 2008 elections as a mid-term fundraising strategy by members of the Republican Party. The challengers sought to overturn the so-called “soft-money ban” of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, barring national political parties from accepting or spending unregulated campaign cash. Currently, the parties can only accept and spend “hard money” – contributions that comply with federal limitations on the amount (individuals can donate no more than $30,400) and on the source (corporations and unions are prohibited from donating). The plaintiffs argued that these regulations “severely restrict[] the ability of political parties to finance political activities” in a manner that unconstitutionally burdened their political rights.

There are two particularly striking things about this claim. First, it’s wrong on the numbers – the parties have just as much money as they had before McCain-Feingold. Empirical data from recent elections shows that political parties have had no trouble meeting and surpassing their pre-reform fundraising totals on hard money alone. To do so, both parties have substantially increased their reliance on small contributions, thereby broadening and diversifying their donor base. This result was predicted in McConnell – rather than suppressing political activity, the Court explained, the soft-money ban would simply require “political committees to raise funds from a greater number of persons.” And it makes perfect sense: When parties were allowed to ask corporations and wealthy individuals for multi-million dollar soft-money checks, why would they have bothered to solicit $20 bucks from your typical, less-endowed voter?

Second, it was a blatant attempt to take a second bite at the apple. The Supreme Court rejected this same undue burden argument just seven years ago in McConnell v. FEC. There, a five-to-four majority found that the government’s compelling interest in combating both actual and perceived corruption in the democratic process justified the “limited burdens” imposed by the hard-money restrictions. The Court pointed to 100,000 plus pages of factual record demonstrating that large soft-money donations to political parties had been routinely used to buy preferential influence over federal elected officials. For example, there were undisputed accounts that members of Congress, obligated to appease large soft-money donors, would manipulate the legislative calendar to successfully block proposed legislation. Such influence-peddling represented a clear end-run around limits on contributions directly to candidates – limitations that have been upheld for decades because they combat corruption. As the Court concluded, if these soft-money abuses were allowed to continue, “the cynical assumption that large donors call the tune could jeopardize the willingness of voters to take part in democratic governance.”

Indeed, given the law and these facts, you would also be excused for asking why the Republican National Committee thought it could successfully re-litigate McConnell in the first place. The answer, unfortunately, has much to do with the composition of the Court. Since the arrival of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito in 2005, the Court has heard four challenges to campaign finance laws – and, each time, has struck down key provisions. As my colleague Monica Youn put it, “the newly constituted majority has moved with stunning haste to dismantle decades-old safeguards intended to limit the effect of special interest money in politics.” Citizens United, decided earlier this year, marked a climax – there, by declaring that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend freely in elections, the Court rendered unconstitutional over 60 years of federal law and flatly overturned one of its own precedents.

And so, reform advocates breathed a sigh of relief when the Court refrained from reconsidering its previous ruling. This means that the national parties will fundraise under the hard-money restrictions in the 2010 mid-term elections. As a result, we can celebrate continued incentives for small-donor participation and safeguards against political corruption. Undoubtedly, a win for democracy – and for all of us.