Almost four years on from Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and following the most expensive election cycle in our nation’s history, a case argued Tuesday before the U.S. Supreme Court has the potential to further monetize our democracy.
McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission addresses the issue of direct contributions to candidates and parties. Specifically, Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee are petitioning the court to strike down aggregate contribution limits – the total amount a person can donate to candidates and party committees during an election. If aggregate contribution limits are lifted, a donor could invest as much as $3.6 million in a two-year cycle – enough to buy the attention of every federally elected official, including the president. Should the Supreme Court strike down these limits, Minnesota’s values of small, clean elections will not be enough to protect us from the overwhelming power and money of special interests.
The case is especially relevant here in Minnesota. Just this year our state Legislature raised candidate contribution limits, allowing even more money into Minnesota’s election system. Ostensibly this move helps candidates to “compete” in the media against the large amounts of special interest money introduced by Citizens United; but their motives would seem more sincere if they had not also failed to pass measures calling on Congress to pass an amendment overturning Citizens United, and increasing public disclosure of monies spent in elections. This strategy — treating the symptom without addressing the cause — calls into question their commitment to getting money out of politics.
Buckley v. Valeo
So how could the Supreme Court decide to remove aggregate contribution limits? Such a decision would fly in the face of decades of judicial precedent. In the case Buckley v. Valeo – in the wake of the Watergate scandal – the Supreme Court upheld direct contribution limits, stating that government had an interest in preventing “corruption, and the appearance of corruption.” Since then, the Supreme Court has consistently relied upon the Buckley ruling. While Citizens United allowed unlimited private expenditures, treating money as “speech,” the court specifically upheld limits on contributions, citing Buckley as the framework by which the constitutionality of contribution limits should be interpreted.
But despite this reassuring position, the Supreme Court could now decide that the right to free “speech” is more important than preventing corruption. The problem with this logic is that most of us do not have access to the kind of “speech” they mean. For example, in the last presidential election nearly 60 percent of Super-PAC funding came from just 159 donors, each contributing at least $1 million. More than 93 percent of the money Super-PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000 — from just 3,318 donors, or the equivalent of 0.0011 percent of the U.S. population.
Unless you are a part of this .0011 percent or have an extra $10,000 to spend on an election, the repercussions of this ruling could be disastrous. There is no need for the Supreme Court to add to the legacy of Citizens United by removing limits on aggregate contributions. In the court’s own words, lifting limits would have the effect of inviting corruption.
Contribution limits don’t threaten participation
I hope the court will find that this is no ‘free-speech’ issue. No campaign finance law regulates what an individual can say about a candidate or issue, and nobody’s participation in elections or campaigns is threatened by contribution limits. In fact as a result of the Citizens United ruling, citizen participation is increasingly threatened and devalued as campaigns increasingly rely on money. McCutcheon could further draw power away from the voices of citizens into the wallets of an elite few, making voters far less influential than a handful of elite donors.
We need to ask ourselves some important questions. With the Legislature’s move to increase the cost of Minnesota elections and its neglect in addressing the root of the problem, can we rely on our elected officials to find the will to change it? And if the Supreme Court removes the limits to direct candidate contributions, what defense do we have left?
Our best hope, both as a state and as a nation, is to continue the push for a constitutional amendment declaring once and for all that money is not speech, and erecting the most permanent safeguard against the corruption of our democracy.
Jeremy Schroeder is the executive director of Common Cause Minnesota.
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