It didn’t start with the Roberts Court, of course. It started with the court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which defined campaign contributions as an expression of free speech, protected by the First Amendment, which, if you think about it, just doesn’t add up. Under the First Amendment, every American enjoys the same freedom to talk, talk, talk. But not every American has the same capacity to write big checks. Equating the two is absurd. Yet even Buckley v. Valeo maintained limits on how much money any individual could contribute, in order to minimize the risk of “quid pro quo” political corruption.
It’s those very safeguards that John Roberts now appears determined to get rid of. He started with the 2010 Citizens United decision that struck down limits on independent spending by corporations, labor unions, and so-called SuperPac’s. But that decision pales compared to this week’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling. As Justice Stephen G. Breyer noted in his sharp dissent, “If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision may well open a floodgate.”
Indeed, it does, and here’s how. Under today’s rules, an individual can contribute no more than $5,200 to any federal candidate each election cycle — $2,600 in the primary; $2,600 in the general — with a maximum of $48,600. Contributions to party committees may not exceed $74,600. Counting candidate and committee contributions, then, the total any individual can contribute in each two-year election cycle is $123,200.
That’s no longer the case. Under McCutcheon’s new rules, the sky’s the limit. True, the $5,200 limit per candidate remains, but an individual can now contribute to as many candidates as he or she wants. No limit. Any fat cat can now write a check for $5,200 to all 435 House candidates — for a mere $2,262,000. Or contribute $74,600 to all national, state and local parties and PACs. Does anybody really believe that putting the Congress up for sale is what James Madison had in mind when he wrote the First Amendment?
The results of the McCutcheon decision are obvious. There will be more money pouring into politics than ever before. And the very wealthy will influence the political system more than ever before. This is pig heaven for the Koch brothers, but it’s a disaster for democracy. And not only because it affords more opportunities for graft and corruption, but also because it undermines the little faith most Americans still have in politics. Former Justice John Paul Stevens made that point loud and clear in his dissent from Citizens United: “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.” Why will people vote if they believe their vote won’t count?
Consider all the damage the McCutcheon decision will do. Then consider who will benefit from it: a handful of exceedingly wealthy contributors, mostly Republican; Republican candidates for House and Senate; and the Republican National Committee, a co-plaintiff in businessman Shaun McCutcheon’s appeal to the Supreme Court. According to the organization Represent.Us (https://represent.us/), only .008 percent of Americans ever write a political check of $2,500 or more. And only a small percentage of that .008 percent wants to spend unlimited funds. But that exceedingly thin slice of the electorate will now control American politics.
Last weekend, we already witnessed what politics will look like post-McCutcheon. One by one, top 2016 GOP hopefuls — Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Scott Walker — came to Las Vegas to bow and scrape before mogul Sheldon Adelson and whisper in his ear whatever they thought he wanted to hear. Why? Because he’s such a smart political operative? No. Last time, he backed Newt Gingrich. Is it because he’s such a model businessman? No. He makes all his money from gambling operations in Vegas and Macau. It’s because he reportedly plunked down $93 million on behalf of Republican candidates in 2012 — and will now be able to spend even more in 2016.
Even some Republicans laughingly called it the “Sheldon Adelson Primary,” but soon we’ll see more of the same. In fact, if John Roberts has his way, we soon won’t have to hold elections at all. We can just put candidates up on eBay and auction them off to the highest bidder. How is this good for democracy? It’s not.
Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show.