IN ITS SEEMINGLY endless quest to attack the few remaining pillars of our campaign finance laws, the Supreme Court issued a brazen ruling in McCutcheon vs. FEC, striking down the aggregate contribution limits that capped the overall amount individuals could give to candidates and political parties each election cycle. As it was with Citizens United—the 2010 decision that said corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts—the court’s April ruling was striking not only in its naiveté about the effect of money in politics, but in its naiveté about the nature of the American experiment itself.
Whereas Citizens United focused on the nature of corporate spending in elections, this decision cuts straight to the chase. Should wealthy people have a greater ability to fund political parties and candidates—and benefit from the greater access and influence that awards them? The court sent a clear message about where it stands: Yes, they should. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, even cloaked the decision in pious language, stating, “if the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades ... it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”
Traditionally the court has asserted that the government has an interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption, the latter in order to sustain public faith in the democratic process. However, the McCutcheon decision defines “corruption” so narrowly that the original statute is essentially useless. The government can no longer prevent the appearance of corruption, and it would have a difficult time proving “quid-pro-quo corruption” occurred in the first place
But despite this disheartening fact, there’s a glimmer of hope. One of the unintended effects of Citizens United was that it created a major “teachable moment” for the public about campaign finance—an issue that had previously gained little attention and was easily misunderstood.