Campaign finance limits are back before the U.S. Supreme Court this week, and that's probably bad news for those who like good government. Think what this country needs is to give more political clout to the wealthy and those who seek special favors from government? Well, your wish may soon be granted.
Tomorrow, the justices will hear arguments in Shaun McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission that challenge aggregate limits on individual campaign donations. Under current law, a donor can't give more than $48,600 to federal candidates during the two-year election cycle and no more than $123,200 when contributions to political committees are added to the mix.
Those caps date back to the post-Watergate philosophy that there's a public interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption. It is not a limit on how much candidates themselves can raise or spend, just a cap on what any one donor can give — a distinction approved by the nation's highest court in 1976 (when aggregate limits were much lower, incidentally) on the theory that a marginal restriction on free speech was justified. After all, anyone can still donate to as many candidates as they like but just not an unlimited amount either to an individual or in total.
But the current court is different, a point they demonstrated in the much-reviled Citizens United decision which ignored precedent and removed restrictions on corporate political donations. Amazingly, the court decided that such contributions may lead to what Justice Anthony M. Kennedy called "ingratiation and access" but not corruption.
You say potato, we say po-tah-to. What exactly is ingratiation and access if not a form of corruption? If politicians elevate the agendas of those who can donate unlimited sums to their political campaigns, aren't their votes being purchased? It stretches credulity to assume that big donors expect no return (aside from a hearty handshake) whatsoever from their bundles of cash.
Admittedly, it's hard to pinpoint exactly the level at which the Alabama-based plaintiff, the chief executive of an engineering firm, should have his donations curbed. As he has noted, he can donate the maximum amount ($2,600) to 18 candidates but not the 19th because he'd hit the $48,600 limit. That strikes him as arbitrary.
Perhaps so, but the problem those limits address is real. In interviews, Mr. McCutcheon has also admitted that his current donations, usually in $1,776 increments toward tea party candidates, already get him plenty of attention in Washington. Nor are candidates exactly hurting thanks to earlier bad decisions and loopholes that give super PACs ways of getting around donation limits.
Conservatives may chafe at limits of any kind, but it's only a tiny fraction of donors who reach the ceiling now. On the other hand, there's a tremendous public interest served in keeping those limits — individual and aggregate — and thus ensuring that the voices of ordinary Americans aren't drowned out by the super-rich.
Trouble is, the Supreme Court is unlikely to agree. Citizens United has already demonstrated the Republican-appointed majority's blind spot on this issue — and their unwillingness to take their cue from Congress and past court decisions. Ultimately, their decision is likely to serve GOP fundraising interests but can only make a political system already mired in dysfunction and balkanization even less responsive to the broader public interest.