Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a 5-4 decision to get rid of caps on individual giving to federal candidates and political parties. This is a significant decision for the future of US politics, but not all that surprising in light of 2010’s Citizens United v Federal Election Commission.
This most recent case, McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission, was brought against the FEC by an Alabama businessman who says he was frustrated that he was legally limited in how many candidates he could support and how much money he could give to parties.
In an interview last week he said that more money “creates more competition and puts more ideas out there. I don’t see how it could hurt anything. We’re talking about free speech in a free country.”
The Citizens United case allowed independent groups including associations, corporations, labour unions and others to donate unlimited amounts of money through the use of political action committees (known as PACs or Super PACs) for political causes and candidates, but not directly to the candidates themselves.
This decision was not only widely criticised for the amount of money it flooded into the political arena, but also because PACs are not very transparent and can protect the identities of donors.
Following the ruling, many people felt that it was unfair to allow impersonal, large organisations like companies and unions to donate massive sums of money for causes, yet individuals themselves were still limited to caps on contributions.
Reince Preibus, chair of the Republican Party, was a major supporter of the plaintiff, arguing that if the caps on individual giving to political parties were removed then a much more transparent picture could be painted of who is donating to whom. His party’s criticism has recently been that if organisations have freedom of speech to donate unlimited sums in politics, then why shouldn’t individuals be free to do the same?
Preibus recently said, as cited in the Wall Street Journal: “What the campaign finance laws have done is put party committees in a place where we have the most restrictions, the most disclosure, and we can raise the least. What’s happened is that the groups that can raise the most disclose the least.”
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion stating that Congress had the power to regulate money in politics in order to reduce corruption; however, Congress could not regulate donations simply to reduce the amount of money in politics. His decision also stated that individual donations to political parties and cause were covered by the First Amendment right to free speech.
The Roberts Court has shown that the majority view political speech including donations as a form of free speech. In response to the criticism from the left that a surge of money in American politics would essentially equate to bribery, he clearly stated in the decision that money alone does not constitute bribery and it is not inherently in the public interest to reduce political speech in donations solely to reduce the likelihood of corruption.
Justice Steven Breyer wrote the dissenting opinion arguing that this case further opened the door for money flooding into politics. Part of his opinion, as printed in the Wall Street Journal, says: “Giving, say, $3,000 or more to each of 435 candidates, a total of $1.3 million, certainly can give rise to corruption or fear of corruption… If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision may well open a floodgate… a few large donations… drown out the voices of the many.” Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg sided with Breyer.
I apprehensively view this decision as a largely positive one. In light of Citizens United, this deicison actually provides more accountability to the US political system. No longer can it only be corporations and unions having the majority of the influence in politics. The people that are the root of all of these groups should have a say as to how they seek to exercise their political speech. When corporations and unions donate to the right or left, the vast majority of the people in those groups have no say as to where their money is going. They simply have to trust their organisation’s leaders that they know what is best for the entire group.
When individuals donate to Super PACs, in many cases, their names are never made public so very wealthy donors can hide their tracks and political insiders are the only ones that have any idea of where the money is coming from. This recent case will allow the most accountable groups to receive massive sums of money and their donors will be disclosed to the public so that the people can hold their leaders answerable to voters.
If there were an easy way to completely limit the amount of money in politics then I would certainly support this option. I was stunned in 2010 when the Citizens United case was decided. The McCutchon case helps to balance out that ruling’s problems.
Unfortunately, there will always be massive amounts of money in US politics: between billionaires, labour unions, corporations, lobbyists, and special interests, they will all find a way to get their voices heard through their wallets. Wouldn’t it be better that we can follow the money and have individuals more loudly heard, than going back to the days of smoke filled rooms and political bosses where individuals have no voice and no one is held accountable?