We’re a bit more attuned in Charlotte these days to the corruptive influence of money in politics. A briefcase with twenty grand in the mayor’s office has a way of making you contemplate the temptations our public servants can face.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, thinks we all should be more trusting of politicians and the people who wave money in front of them. In its ruling Wednesday on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Court continued its dangerous dismantling of the country’s campaign finance laws. Four years ago, in Citizens United, the justices lifted restrictions on political contributions from corporations. Wednesday’s ruling might be worse.
In McCutcheon, the Court struck down aggregate limits on campaign contributions to candidates for Congress and president, as well as limits on contributions to political party committees. Gone is the overall contribution cap of $123,000 a year, as well as a separate $48,600 cap on total contributions made only to candidates.
That means that while people are still limited to giving individual candidates $2,600 a year, they can contribute millions to that candidate’s party and political action committees, which can funnel the money right back into specific campaigns. And those politicians will know who the benefactor is, of course.
That’s important for two reasons: First, those with the money will have more access to candidates and influence over the national conversation during elections. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said during oral arguments in McCutcheon last October: “By having these limits, you are promoting democratic participation. Then the little people will count some and you won’t have the super-affluent as the speakers that will control the elections.”
At least as important is the control the affluent may have over the candidates. The contribution limits eliminated Wednesday were introduced in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and they were upheld by the Court two years later in Buckley v. Valeo. In that ruling, the court said that regulating campaign contributions is justified because of the potential for corruption.
The Roberts Court thinks that’s overblown, and supporters of the decision already are crowing about how the McCutcheon ruling was a victory for the First Amendment right to voice your political preferences with your checkbook. Their next target: The $2,600 annual limit on giving to individual candidates. Justice Clarence Thomas, in his McCutcheon assent Wednesday, said that cap also should have been whacked.
McCutcheon, by itself, does enough damage. It gives more power to the well-financed few, who now have near limitless freedom to dangle that money in front of public officials. That shouldn’t be a worry, a majority of the Court said Wednesday. In Charlotte, and too many places like it, we know better.
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