In the wake of landmark rulings in the Supreme Court's 2012-13 term -- ranging from decisions on voting rights and LGBT equality to employment discrimination and affirmative action -- this coming Court term is shaping up to be at least as consequential as the last. Most notably, on the second day of its new term -- tomorrow -- the Court will hear arguments in a case that threatens to further unravel our nation's already tattered campaign finance laws.
The landscape isn't pretty. When you look around at the campaign finance structure set up after the Watergate scandal, not much of it remains today. In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court upheld many of the new campaign finance rules, but it also eroded the foundations of the whole structure when it struck down limits on individuals' "independent" election spending. In Citizens United v. FEC (2010), the Court went further and said that CEOs can spend virtually limitless amounts of other people's money to influence election outcomes. All of this judicial activism for the biggest spenders and CEOs, in these cases and others, has given us a political process awash in unregulated and highly motivated cash. Now under attack is one of the last pillars standing among the ruins of our once-ambitious campaign finance legal structure: the caps on direct contributions to candidates, PACs, and parties.
Since Buckley, the Court has held that direct contributions to candidates' campaigns can be reasonably capped in the interests of countering corruption. Such corruption was a central concern of the Founders, as James Madison noted many years ago. But apparently, not everyone shares Madison's concern about corruption of our politics.
In McCutcheon v. FEC, a wealthy donor named Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee are bringing a sweeping challenge to "aggregate limits" -- the total amount a person can give in each election cycle, which is currently set at $123,200. McCutcheon maxed out on his aggregate giving in 2012 but says he wanted to give twelve more contributions of $1,776 each (get it?) to Republican candidates and an additional $75,000 to Republican party committees, but could not do so because of the overall limits.
If the plaintiffs win, McCutcheon could theoretically give in one cycle more than $2.4 million to all Republican federal candidates, $194,000 to the national party, and $1 million to the state Republican committees. And through the workings of joint fundraising committees, huge amounts -- well in excess of the individual maximum contributions allowed -- could end up being directed to support a single candidate. On top of that, individuals could give $10,000 per election cycle to any number of PACs set up to support a particular candidate. Even with the intermediaries, the candidates would know who to thank.
Do we really want our political system to operate even more like an auction? The current limit on overall contributions is more than double what average American families earn in a year, and the plaintiffs want to be able to put even more money directly into campaigns?
This is a pale shadow of democracy that the enemies of campaign finance law have in mind for us all. It does not resemble anything most Americans would like to see for our government, but it appears to be quite attractive to the ultraconservative activists on the Court.
There's reason to hope that even this Court will step back from the brink, but the fact that it has even taken the case is sobering. There's hope, too, in the increasingly popular push for a constitutional amendment to repair the damage done in Citizens United and related cases -- and in the words of individual Americans speaking out in support of the kind of democracy we want to live in. As Tompkins County, NY Legislator Nate Shinagawa -- a member of PFAW Foundation's Young Elected Officials Network -- wrote last week, "The vast majority of Americans may not be able to donate millions to political candidates, but our voices should still matter."
So tomorrow when the case is argued, I will join hundreds of others on the steps of the Supreme Court and raise my voice. I'll raise it in support of protecting what's left of our nation's campaign finance structure. I'll raise it in support of getting our country's political system back to one that is no longer guided by the agenda of wealthy special interests. In short, I'll raise it for democracy. And I hope you'll join me.
Adapted from "Blockbuster Case Begins New Supreme Court Term: The McCutcheon Steamroller" edit memo.