If you were still laboring under the impression that the United States operates as a functional democracy, the US Supreme Court has once again decided you’re wrong.
On April 2, in McCutcheon vs. FEC, the Supreme Court ruled in 5-4 decision that aggregate limits on campaign contributions are unconstitutional. Previously, rich people who wanted to give money to election campaigns were limited both in how much they could give to a single candidate and how much they could give, period. While the individual spending cap is still in place, the aggregate cap – how much a donor can spend overall – has now been totally removed.
Why is this disastrous, you ask? The individual limits are still there; people like wealthy Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, who filed the court case against the Federal Election Committee when they told him he was spending too much money on elections, are still only allowed to give about five thousand dollars to a single candidate. The problem is that the elimination of the aggregate limit opens the doors for all sorts of wacky financial corruption. Take political action committees (PACs) as an example. These groups serve as a sort of “middle man” between donors and candidates, and they are also restricted as to how much money they can give to any one candidate. However, the number of PACs in existence is not set in stone; new ones spring up all the time, and with the death of the total spending limit, donors can use a network of PACs to funnel more money to a candidate than he or she would ever have been allowed to give directly.
The Supreme Court’s decision is another step down the road toward political corruption being enshrined into law. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his dissenting opinion that 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.” Like the Citizens United decision in 2010, it codifies the practice of subverting democracy with wealth, to the sole benefit of the rich and powerful.
For supporters of the decision, of course, money isn’t the issue. The issue is freedom of speech.
An opinion written in Forbes magazine (because of course, it had to be Forbes magazine) stated that, “We all benefit from the exchange of ideas, regardless of their source. That is why cries of ‘corporations are not people!’ are not an adequate response to the Citizens United decision which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums of money on political speech. The entity speaking does not matter, the speech itself does.”
“There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, for the majority. “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects.”
And, of course, Justice Clarence Thomas said he thought McCutcheon didn’t go far enough; he thinks all limits on campaign spending should be removed.
Every person in this country has a voice or form of expression; we can all yell slogans at protests, write to Congressmen or discuss the issues of the day online. What we can’t all do is hold a three million dollar check above a candidate’s head and say, “You want this? Don’t even think about raising taxes on the wealthy.” Money is not speech; money is money, and it matters very much which “entity” is providing it. The Republican faithful didn’t just make what can only be called a pilgrimage to Las Vegas (a modern-day Mecca if ever there was one) to listen to billionaire Sheldon Adelson talk. They went to find out what they can do to get Adelson’s cash (don’t say anything bad about Israel, for a start; I’m looking at you, Chris Christie).
This notion that more money in politics broadens the exchange of ideas or allows more actors into the political process is ludicrous to the point of insanity. More money in politics means the people with the most money have the most influence, while the rest of us commoners get shut out and shut up. That’s not free speech. It’s actually kind of the opposite.
Originally published in The Lumberjack.