Over the course course of a century, reformers constructed a web of rules to curb the ability of a wealthy few to distort the political process with big checks. Now the reformers are on the defensive, at least on the national level, trying to protect the rules in the face of a hostile Supreme Court and a continuing flood of cash into the political system.
In 1907, corporate donations to campaigns were banned. In 1940, limits were set on how much individuals could donate to candidates. In the 1970s, restrictions were added on the total amount people could give every election cycle to campaigns and various political committees. In 2002 came the banning of “soft money” that sloshed around the system.
But the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling and another decision in a related case opened the way for unlimited corporate, union or individual contributions to groups that keep just enough distance from candidates to claim that they are “independent.”
On Tuesday, the court heard a fresh challenge, McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, contesting the personal donation limits that became law in 1974. Under the rules, individuals can donate no more than $123,200 every election cycle — a total of $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to political parties, associated political committees and the like.
During Tuesday’s arguments, Justice Antonin Scalia wondered why keeping these sorts of restrictions still made sense, since cash-flush companies and individuals can direct vast amounts of money toward nominally independent spending on candidates’ behalf. His comments were both galling and unconvincing. They were galling because big spenders wouldn’t have the opportunity to distort the process if Scalia and his colleagues hadn’t handed down Citizens United. And they were unconvincing because donations given to candidates and groups more directly associated with them are more likely to buy influence. Campaign finance reform advocates warn of candidates or party leaders asking for multi-million-dollar checks directly from a few wealthy people, as long as the cash is spread strategically among candidates, state party committees and others involved in election efforts.
Relying on Buckley vs. Valeo, a 1976 Supreme Court case that challenged the 1974 law, the reformers have a shot at prevailing, or at least limiting the damage from a negative ruling. Chief Justice John Roberts seemed open to at least maintaining aggregate caps on donations to party committees.
If anything, Scalia’s words should spark an effort to deal with the wide legal channels through which large amounts of money can legally enter and corrupt the political process within the strictures the court majority has imposed. One rational response to the erosion of limits on campaign cash would be more transparency about where money comes from and where it goes. Secret donors injected more than $300 million into last year’s elections. Enabling the public to easily evaluate the donors behind campaigns at least would allow citizens to vote against candidates who may be beholden to a wealthy few.
There is one problem. Politicians who once claimed to support more transparency, such as Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., turned against the idea the once reformers began losing in court. That’s indefensible.