Sen. Bernie Sanders may have had the quote of the week when he said: “Freedom of speech, in my view, does not mean the freedom to buy the United States government.” Then added: “What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in? To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires, like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, will control our political process.”
Sen. Sanders was referring to the ruling Wednesday in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down limits on the total amount of money an individual could spend on political candidates. The court ruled it was a violation of free speech rights.
The 5-4 decision was along party lines with the five conservatives adding another dagger into the heart of campaign finance laws that have been used to tap down the amount of big money in campaigns from single sources since Buckley v. Valeo, in 1976. That decision (defending a law passed by congress in the wake of the Watergate scandal) limited campaign contributions to $2,600 per election per federal candidate, but allowed unlimited contributions to political action committees (PACs), which had to spend its money independent of parties or candidates. The decision recognized the corrupting influence of money in campaigns and drew a distinction between contributions to a candidate — which the court said should be restricted to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption — and expenditures, which the court equated to a person’s right to political expression.
Wednesday’s ruling comes on the heels of Citizens United v. FEC, in which the court ruled that corporations should be treated as individuals and be allowed to spend freely in elections.
Wednesday’s decision did not change the limit on how much an individual can give to any one candidate, which remains at $2,600 per two-year election cycle, but struck down a provision in the case, McCutcheon v. FEC, that capped contributions to all candidates at $48,600, and to political parties and committees at $74,600.
Opponents of the ruling contend it creates a giant loophole that will allow super-sized joint funding committees that could solicit checks for millions of dollars and pour the funding into competitive campaigns.
The decision sparked sharp dissent from the court’s more liberal justices. “If Citizen’s United opened a door, today’s decision we fear will open a floodgate,” wrote Justice Stephen G. Breyer in his dissent, noting that “when money calls the tune, those ideas representing the voices of the people will not be heard.”
What’s interesting about Chief Justice John Roberts’ Jr. ruling in the case is how he recognizes the corrupting influence of money in campaigns, yet opens the door for such corruption while denying any viable means to prevent it. Rather, he argues that efforts to regulate contributions to candidates had to be specifically tied to “quid pro quo” corruption, meaning a direct correlation to money given for an action delivered.
“Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to such quid pro quo corruption,” Roberts wrote in his decision.
That ignores, of course, the very power of money in politics — influencing a congressman’s vote at a later date on issues he or she knows the donor expects allegiance for the money given. Vote against those wishes and the money will be used against them in subsequent elections.
In his ruling, Roberts sets the bar of corruption to an outright bribe as in the criminal sense of that transaction. Politics is more subtle than that, as he surely knows, which is why the ruling is so appalling.
“I was deeply disappointed (by the ruling), but it is what it is,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Wednesday. “I predict again there will be major scandals in campaign finance contributions that will cause reform… There will be scandal. There’s too much money washing around.”
When a leading statesman and former presidential candidate of the Republican Party admits the shortcomings of the decision, you know it wasn’t the court’s finest hour.
— Angelo S. Lynn