McCutcheon ruling compounds damage of Citizens United

April 2, 2014 

For North Carolinians being bombarded by third-party ads related to the state’s U.S. Senate race, the Supreme Court delivered an odd message Wednesday – rich people should be free to spend even more money, indeed unlimited amounts of money – to influence the outcome of federal elections

Voting 5-4 along ideological lines, the high court said in McCutcheon v. FEC that the current limit on the aggregate amount individuals can give to candidates violates the First Amendment. The decision lifts the $48,600 limit that an individual could contribute every two years to all federal candidates. It also removed the $74,600 limit on individual contributions to federal party committees. However, the court kept in place the limit on giving to one candidate, $2,600 per primary and general election.

The decision adds to the unfolding catastrophe of the court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that allowed corporations and labor unions to give unlimited amounts to Political Action Committees and other groups that seek to influence elections and politicians. That decision spawned super PACs and “dark money” groups in which corporations can spend directly to influence elections without having to disclose the source of the money. As a result, non-party, outside spending in 2012 tripled that of 2008.

In dissenting from the bench, Justice Stephen Breyer called the McCutcheon decision a potentially reckless lifting of limits. “If the court in Citizens United opened a door,” he said, “today’s decision may well open a floodgate.”

Court’s two themes

Together, the rulings emphasize two major themes of the court under Chief Justice John Roberts. First is that corporations, as Mitt Romney said, are people, too and are entitled to the same rights as flesh-and-blood United States citizens. Second, the wealthy should have no abridgment of their ability to buy political influence at the expense of ordinary citizens who lack their financial power.

Roberts, writing for justices in the controlling opinion, said, “There is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” Justice Clarence Thomas provided the court’s deciding vote, but he argued that the court should have eliminated all limits on campaign contributions.

These two rulings will gorge the already money-swollen political system with special-interest money and further shrink the influence of those who have only the power of their vote and perhaps resources for a modest political contribution. The decision will not affect North Carolina’s state-level races because there is no limit on aggregate contributions.

Watergate reform undone

The McCutcheon decision is especially shameful for the history behind the limits it ends and the evidence of how Citizens United has already warped the nation’s democratic process. The aggregate limits were imposed in response to the Watergate scandal that exposed anew the corrupting effect of campaign cash. That the court did not lift the limits on contributions to individual candidates seems to acknowledge the hazards of unlimited giving in a particular race. Why would that caution not also be applied to having wealthy contributors giving the maximum amount to an unlimited number of candidates?

Further, the court continued to spill more money into politics even as giving allowed by Citizens United is turning elections into auctions. Concentrations of wealth – whether held by corporations or the ever-soaring 1 percent – are distorting election issues with misleading and deceptive ads and subverting the ability of the popular will to make itself heard at the polls.

Roberts acknowledged that many people dislike the rising influence of money in politics, but he said the First Amendment must protect even unpopular actions such as flag burning or Nazi assemblies. But there is a difference between the First Amendment protecting the symbolically offensive and its allowing the overtly dangerous.

When a democracy built on the principle of, and animated by the belief in, “one person, one vote” becomes controlled by or is seen as controlled by not the number of votes, but the number of dollars, that democracy is in danger and its citizens are at risk.

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