by David Earley, Counsel, Democracy Program, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision today dealt another serious blow to the regulation of money in politics. In its 5-4 decision, the Court struck down the federal aggregate contribution limits, which restrict the amount one person can contribute to all candidates, parties, and political committees combined. As a result, one person can now give more than $3.6 million to one party’s candidates and committees in a single election cycle (under the limits, one could give “only” $123,200 per election cycle). With a sufficiently sophisticated joint fundraising apparatus, this money could be given in response to a solicitation from a single party leader.
While this is troubling by itself, the more sinister part of the decision lies in the groundwork the decision laid for future money in politics cases.
The Court doubled down on its holding that corruption only includes contributions given with the expectation of receiving official action in return — essentially a direct bribe in the guise of a political contribution. The Court also acknowledged that contributions can be used to gain ingratiation with and access to government officials while not reaching the level of outright bribery. But the Court praised this relationship rather than condemning it:
We have said that government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford. . . . They embody a central feature of democracy—that constituents support candidates who share their beliefs and interests, and candidates who are elected can be expected to be responsive to those concerns.
This vision of the Constitution is wrong. It elevates wealthy donors who can afford to buy influence over 99.99 percent of Americans, who have an equal right to representation. Although the Court may talk in the language of protecting constituents, the outcome is clear — big donors can give to however many candidates they want, regardless of whether they can vote for those candidates or would be constituents of those candidates. This case is about big money, not constituents.