Money in politics
Sky's the limit
The justices open the door to more campaign contributions
SHAUN McCUTCHEON, a businessman from Alabama, wanted to give a symbolic $1,776 to 28 Republican candidates for Congress in 2012.
Because of federal limits imposed after the Watergate scandal, Mr McCutcheon was allowed to donate this sum only to 16 campaigns.
On April 2nd, however, the Supreme Court ruled that he can get his chequebook out again.
In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the justices voted 5-4 to strike down two “aggregate caps” on campaign contributions,
leaving “base limits” of $2,600 per candidate, per election intact.
Where individuals had been limited to total contributions of $48,600 to candidates for federal office and $74,600 to political parties and political-action committees, they can now give as much as they like.
“There is no right more basic in our democracy,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court's plurality opinion,
“than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”
The First Amendment's freedom-of-speech guarantee includes the right to “contribute to a candidate's campaign.”
So although “money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some,” it is entitled to “vigorous” protection.
It is unconstitutional, Mr Roberts wrote, to “restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.”
The only good reason to curb campaign donations, the Court ruled, is to prevent corruption.
So caps on donations to individual candidates make sense: a “financial quid pro quo”, or appearance thereof,
taints a $1m cheque to someone running for Congress.
But if it is lawful to give $1,776 to one candidate, or 16, it is odd to argue that the same sum would corrupt the 17th recipient,
or the 400th. “The Government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support,”
Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.”
In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer and three other liberal justices argued that the ruling undervalues the “integrity of our governmental institutions”.
Together with the Citizens Uniteddecision of 2010, Mr Breyer charged, McCutcheon “eviscerates our Nation's campaign-finance laws,
leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”
The majority fails to understand what donor dollars can buy, fumed Mr Breyer.
“The threat...posed by the risk of special access and influence,” he wrote, “remains real.”