Think that American democracy has been corrupted by big money? A five-justice majority of the U.S. Supreme Court provided fresh justification for that judgment on Wednesday, striking down federal law’s aggregate limits on contributions to federal candidates, parties or political action committees (PACs).
The 5-4 ruling in McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission likely won’t make “McCutcheon” the household word that “Citizens United” has become in the wake of the high court’s 2010 ruling that opened a floodgate of corporate and union money into political campaigns. Wednesday’s decision removed another restriction on the flow of campaign cash — one that was proving increasingly ineffective, as big donors have opted for independent expenditures rather than donations to candidates to convey their messages to the public.
But McCutcheon is likely to reinforce a growing sense that control of this nation’s government has slipped out of average people’s hands. History suggests that can be a disruptive sentiment.
The high court did not go as far as it might have in tearing down post-Watergate-era restraints on money in politics. It preserved limits on how much can be donated to an individual candidate for Congress, now at $2,600 per two-year cycle. But gone are limits on an individual’s total giving in a cycle, which were $48,600 to all federal candidates and $74,600 to parties and PACs.
Minnesota’s state campaign finance laws include no such limits and are unaffected by the McCutcheon decision.
At the federal level, the court ruling likely means that more members of Congress can expect their campaigns to be direct beneficiaries of the largesse of the likes of the Koch brothers. But we doubt it will diminish independent expenditures by wealthy interests. Current campaign laws and court decisions allow that money to pass through nonprofit groups that can grant donors anonymity — denying American voters a deserved chance to judge the political messages they hear. That’s a flaw in Minnesota campaign law that the Legislature has an opportunity to correct this year.
With McCutcheon, the Supreme Court is inviting the nation’s biggest political spenders to spend more. We doubt most Americans think that’s the right remedy for what ails this country.