Court needs to keep contribution limits

October 10, 2013 

The following editorial appeared in the Charlotte Observer:

You know what the problem in American politics is today?

Not enough money!

Not enough influence by special interests!

Not enough appearance of corruption!

Too much access for regular people!

Fear not. The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rid us of these problems, and might even be willing to overturn its own precedent to do so. Its upcoming ruling in a case called McCutcheon vs. FEC could eliminate those pesky flaws once and for all.

The court heard arguments in the case Tuesday. An Alabama businessman, Shaun McCutcheon, argues that Congress violates the Constitution by letting him give only $123,200 to candidates and political parties in one election cycle. Putting any limits on his total political contributions violates his First Amendment right to free speech, he says.

The court must decide whether McCutcheon’s “free speech” right to cut checks worth $3.6 million to political committees every two years outweighs the damage done to a republic when a tiny handful of donors has Congress in its pockets.

After the court’s misguided Citizens United decision in 2010, a ruling in favor of McCutcheon could destroy the last remaining protection against huge money flowing from individuals to individual politicians, and the access it buys. As Justice Elena Kagan said Tuesday, “If you give $3.5 million, you get a very special place at the table.”

When considering McCutcheon’s free speech rights, one should note that thanks to Citizens United, he can already spend (and speak) as much as he likes, so long as he does not coordinate his messaging with a specific candidate.

McCutcheon is challenging what’s known as “aggregate” limits – the total amount any one person can give to candidates, parties or PACs in one election cycle. The limits on how much can be given to any one candidate are not at issue. If you’re unfamiliar with this aggregate limit, it means you’re not one of the 600 people in this nation of 314 million who reached the limit for individual candidates in 2012.

The founding fathers were dedicated to protecting the government from corruptive influences. America lost that battle long ago, but there’s little question the founders would have seen campaign finance regulation as within Congress’s scope.

The Supreme Court has precedent to guide it, and has repeatedly followed that precedent. In the 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo, the court established that Congress has the authority to set contribution limits (but not spending limits) to protect against the appearance of corruption. The need for such protection has intensified, not waned, in the intervening 37 years.

Does anyone really believe anymore that political access cannot be bought and sold? Is more money from a handful of people what our political system needs?

Congress’s approval ratings are the lowest they’ve ever been, and understandably so. We need a federal government more responsive to the average person, not less. The McCutcheon case threatens to ensure that never happens.

MCT Information Services

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