The Common Good

Supreme Court Doubles Down on Money as Speech

Yesterday, the Supreme Court struck down a law that limited the amount of money that an individual can contribute to political campaigns in a two-year election cycle, while upholding the limit that an individual can give to a single campaign in the same period. Previously, the law limited total individual contributions to all political campaigns to $48,600, while capping individual donations to a single campaign at $2,600.

The bottom line of yesterday's McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling is that there will be more money in politics, as the Court doubles down on the controversial 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that allowed unlimited, anonymous expenditures by outside groups on election activities. Those with resources can now contribute up to $2,600 in all 435 congressional districts, more than 30 Senate races, and the presidential election, while at the same time giving millions more to Super PACs in support of these candidates.

The ruling will give more influence to corporate and labor lobbyists whose groups contribute to political campaigns. It is still illegal to give a donation that explicitly requests a legislative action in return for the contribution. But while politicians spend hours every week making phone calls soliciting contributions, they aren’t likely to forget who is funding their political future. When they hang up the phone and meet a lobbyist in their office whose group is funding their campaign, there is an unspoken understanding that the politician will be more open to the idea that lobbyist is presenting.

This undermines the very foundation of our democracy: one person, one vote. Instead of a politician’s interest lying solely with the interests of their constituents, our campaign finance system gives outsized influence to those with access to politicians. Simply put, political contributions buy more access to elected officials. Instead of having the freedom to make the bold decisions that most Americans want to see politicians make, the campaign finance system leaves our government’s leaders tied to the whims of their donors who often support the status quo. Our campaign finance system is a major contributor to the gridlock we see in Washington yesterday.

The ruling also says that we value giving the rich more influence in elections more than we value everyone’s right to go to the polls to vote. Combined with last year’s decision striking down a key portion of the landmark Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court is sending a clear message that the future of elections will allow more influence for the very rich and less access to the voting booth for the most vulnerable.

Although it opens the door to more total money being spent in an election cycle, the McCutcheon decision does not allow for unlimited contributions to an individual candidate. While this nuance does make the decision less extreme than the Citizens United ruling, it does nothing to roll back the billions of dollars that flooded the 2010 and 2012 elections in outside Super PAC spending.

The Court has made its vision of the future of electoral politics clear. What is unclear is how Americans will respond to the increasing influence money is having in our political system. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In the wake of these rulings, where are our collective hearts as a nation? Many of the government’s elected officials have a heart to do good when they come to Washington, but the allure of re-election through Wall Street money and single-minded billionaires often corrupts their sincere intentions. Instead of addressing one of the core problems undermining the health of our democracy, this ruling only exacerbates it. We are in danger of our government no longer being “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Joey Longley is Communications Assistant for Sojourners.

Image: Pillars of the Supreme Court, Brandon Bourdages / Shutterstock.com

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