Tyler Creighton: Supreme Court case could grant wealthy even greater say in American politics
BOSTON — Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case that could rival Citizens United for its destructive impact on American democracy. At issue is the constitutionality of aggregate contribution limits, or the total amounts individuals can donate directly to federal candidates and parties.
It short, it is about whether the ultra-rich should be able to give more than $74,600 to parties and political action committees, $48,600 to candidates, and $123,200 combined. At stake is the already deteriorating health of American democracy.
Aggregate contribution limits, instituted by Congress in response to Watergate-era scandals, mitigate government corruption and the potential for government corruption caused by large political donations to elected officials. The constitutionality of the limits was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo, and, in fact, the court has never struck down a federal contribution limit since Buckley.
But that isn’t stopping Shaun McCutcheon of Alabama and the Republican National Committee from continuing a concerted attack on our increasingly feeble campaign finance laws. McCutcheon contends that restricting his direct political contributions to $123,200 infringes on free speech. When was the last time you could afford a donation of that size? If he succeeds, he and the handful of elite donors will be able to give multi-million dollar donations directly to federal candidates and parties.
The McCutcheon case is a bad sequel to the court’s Citizens United decision, which paved the way for corporations and wealthy individuals to spend unlimited money influencing elections “independently” of candidates and parties. The result was a windfall for the ultra-rich. In 2012, 32 SuperPAC donors giving an average of $9.9 million matched at least 3.7 million small donors.
McCutcheon would make matters far worse by allowing candidates and parties to solicit these big donations directly. Independent expenditures and SuperPACs are bad, but the Supreme Court has argued that the supposed firewall between the biggest donors and the candidates protects against the most dangerous opportunities for corruption. That firewall ceases to exist if McCutcheon prevails.
For example, without aggregate contribution limits, President Obama and Mitt Romney’s joint party fundraising committees could have solicited up to $1.2 million per donor instead of the $70,800 per donor they actually solicited (now $74,600 because of an inflation trigger). In 2012, 1,257 individuals gave this amount. National party leaders could take it one step further still, soliciting up to $3.6 million per donor with joint fundraising efforts that combine all federal candidates.
And what is the result to government of, by and for the people? Big contributions purchase access and influence in policymaking, and big donors have very different views than average American voters. A study on this topic by political scientist Martin Gilens finds that government “responsiveness is strongly tilted toward the most affluent citizens,” or the very same people who contribute the vast majority of campaign funds each election. Striking down aggregate contribution limits would place government decision-making even more in the hands of society’s most well-to-do.
McCutcheon isn’t afraid to admit as much. A recent New York Times article reports, “he sounded a little star-struck by the attention he had received from prominent politicians, first for his donations and now for his lawsuit.” McCutcheon has reportedly met some 15 senators during recent trips to Washington and had extended discussions with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He even had one-on-one meetings with all of the presidential candidates that came to Alabama, including Mitt Romney.
Make no mistake, McCutcheon’s challenge is not about expanding our collective rights; it’s about further amplifying the rights of a select few by diluting the rights of the rest of us. It’s about decimating what is left of political equality by granting even more access to and influence over policymaking to those who can make six- and seven-figure campaign contributions.
A decision in McCutcheon against aggregate limits would rub even more salt in the wounds of our democracy, bringing us closer to the pre-Watergate years of legalized bribery. Democracy only works when citizens, confident in its democratic workings, collectively participate in the political process. But each election average citizens witness the enormous and growing influence of the biggest political donors, and, in turn, lose even more confidence in the system and think — why even waste the time?
In making their decision, the Supreme Court justices should reflect not on the consequences of contribution limits for the relatively few wealthy people who already wield superior political influence, but for everyone who already feels like their voices do not count. The health of our democracy depends on it.
Tyler Creighton is assistant director of Common Cause Massachusetts.