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In McCutcheon, Justices Advance Troubling Vision of Democracy

The 5–4 ruling elevates wealthy donors who can afford to buy influence over 99.99 percent of Americans, who have an equal right to representation.

  • David Earley
April 2, 2014

Crossposted on The American Constitution Society

The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision today dealt another serious blow to the regulation of money in politics. In its 5–4 decision, the Court struck down the federal aggregate contribution limits, which restrict the amount one person can contribute to all candidates, parties, and political committees combined. As a result, one person can now give more than $3.6 million to one party’s candidates and committees in a single election cycle (under the limits, one could give “only” $123,200 per election cycle). With a sufficiently sophisticated joint fundraising apparatus, this money could be given in response to a solicitation from a single party leader.

While this is troubling by itself, the more sinister part of the decision lies in the groundwork the decision laid for future money in politics cases. 

The Court doubled down on its holding that corruption only includes contributions given with the expectation of receiving official action in return — essentially a direct bribe in the guise of a political contribution. The Court also acknowledged that contributions can be used to gain ingratiation with and access to government officials while not reaching the level of outright bribery. But the Court praised this relationship rather than condemning it: 

“We have said that government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford. . . . They embody a central feature of democracy—that constituents support candidates who share their beliefs and interests, and candidates who are elected can be expected to be respon­sive to those concerns.”

This vision of the Constitution is wrong. It elevates wealthy donors who can afford to buy influence over 99.99 percent of Americans, who have an equal right to representation. Although the Court may talk in the language of protecting constituents, the outcome is clear — big donors can give to however many candidates they want, regardless of whether they can vote for those candidates or would be constituents of those candidates. This case is about big money, not constituents.

Beyond this, the overtones of the decision suggested that contribution limits may be subject to harsher constitutional scrutiny in the future. If the Court changes this standard for review, it will be more difficult to successfully defend contribution limits from First Amendment challenges in future cases. The Campaign Legal Center’s Trevor Potter describes this danger in a blog post that predates the McCutcheon decision.

There are still meaningful ways to limit the power of big money in our political system. We need to enact disclosure laws to eliminate dark money, elevate the voices of ordinary voters through small donor public financing, strengthen rules against coordinated spending and the circumvention contribution limits, and ensure existing rules are enforced. 

But until then, even more money will flow directly to candidates, further marginalizing average voters at the expense of the wealthy. While this is just the latest step in a long line of recent cases weakening our campaign finance system, the decision strongly signals that more is still yet to come.

(Photo: Thinkstock)