Friday, May 16, 2014

SCOTUS Widens Gate for Big Money in Politics

This piece was written by Notre Dame junior Iris Schweier and originally published as an article in Common Sense on April 23, 2014.

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said “it should be the power of our vote, not the size of our bank accounts, that drives our democracy.” The Supreme Court seems to disagree. 

On April 2, 2014, the Court decided McCutcheon v. FEC and struck down aggregate contribution limits in federal elections. The 5-4 ruling held that caps on the total amount of money an individual can give to political campaigns, PACs, and parties in a given election cycle are unconstitutional. 

Individuals are now free to give as much as they want, or as much as their checkbook allows. In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the “decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws.” 

Prior to McCutcheon, a wealthy donor could contribute up to $123,200 per two-year election cycle. That’s more than double the median household income in our country. Clearly, the previous cap affected only the wealthiest Americans, whereas the Court’s decision impacts the vast majority of regular people who want their voices to matter. In practical terms, the decision means that one wealthy individual can donate millions to numerous candidates, PACs, and political parties around the country.

Without aggregate limits, nothing prevents a wealthy donor from—legally—funneling money to a candidate after he or she has already reached the maximum in direct contributions to the candidate. For instance, if Donor A can’t give more to Candidate B, Donor A could simply write checks to a joint fundraising committee, which in turn could funnel the money back to one particular party committee that works entirely to support Candidate B.

The potential for corruption is high, especially considering our political history. For instance, according to a 1974 congressional report, the dairy industry laundered $2 million to Nixon’s reelection campaign through hundreds of contributions to various committees “which could then hold the money [… ] so as to permit the producers to meet independent reporting requirements without disclosure.” Today, wealthy donors like the Koch brothers routinely turn to party committees to channel further political contributions after maxing out in contributions to individual candidates. 

Political candidates know who their biggest donations come from, and they know that pleasing big donors while in office is key to getting money for their reelection campaigns. But what about the 99 percent of Americans who can’t afford to be big donors? Elected officials ought to work to please them as well. 
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said “government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.” 

Campaign finance reform is needed now more than ever in the wake of McCutcheon, and as people like Minnesota Senator Al Franken have noted, this may mean amending the constitution—a document that was meant to form a government by the people and for the people.

If our government is truly for the people, the voice of the people must be heard. It must not be drowned out by big money. 

No comments: