Editorial: Ruling boosts power of wealthy donors
‘On health care, Jeanne Shaheen didn’t tell the truth. . . . Next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don’t, you know what to do.”
“Scott Brown wrote legislation helping big banks make risky investments. Now he’s shopping for a Senate seat in New Hampshire. Really? That’s good for Wall Street and great for Scott Brown, but it doesn’t make sense for New Hampshire.”
“I’m worried about my future, and I don’t think Annie Kuster gets it.”
“Carol Shea-Porter said, ‘If you like your coverage, you can keep it.’ It wasn’t true. . . . Carol Shea-Porter just doesn’t get it.”
“Brown took thousands from big oil just weeks before voting to keep giving them billions in special government handouts.”
The filing period for the 2014 political races is still a couple months off, but New Hampshire airwaves are already clogged with the headache-inducing sound of what passes for political discourse: advertisements that trade in hyperbole, repetition, insinuation and negativity.
Get ready for more.
In a discouraging ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court last week, a predictable 5-4 majority struck down the limits on the combined total contributions that individual donors can make to candidates for federal office, political parties and other political committees. Until now, a single donor was limited to giving no more than $123,200 in total contributions to federal candidates and committees in a single election cycle – not a particularly insignificant sum. At least for now, contribution limits of $5,200 per election cycle to individual federal candidates remain. But as a result of the McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission ruling, donors can give the maximum to as many candidates and committees as they want, dramatically increasing their influence. Do the math: A single donor could conceivably contribute as much as $3.6 million in a single cycle; that’s the sum of maximum donations to all national and state party committees and a party’s presidential and congressional candidates.
Incredibly, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, seemed to dismiss the notion that anyone would actually do such a thing. Americans want judges to be above politics. We don’t expect them to be naive about how politics works. The measure the court unraveled was one that Congress – whose members do understand how the game is played – enacted precisely because they worried about such spending.
Corruption isn’t limited to quid-pro-quo bribery. It also includes a scenario in which wealthy Americans come to control influence over the political process and access to political office holders. Does an enormous political donor have a better shot at getting your congresswoman’s ear than you do? Of course.
As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a powerful dissent, the ruling “misconstrues the nature of the competing constitutional interests at stake. It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions. It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign. Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, today’s decision 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.”
What practical recourse do citizens have? Campaign finance advocates are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would curb the power of moneyed interests in politics, a difficult challenge indeed. Roberts himself suggested that Congress could limit the way money is transferred through parties to candidates. But in the short-term, the ruling should serve as a reminder to all Americans about the importance of participating: paying real attention to the goings-on in Washington, applying a high level of skepticism to the flood of ads coming our way, and voting.