On Wednesday, April 2, the Supreme Court came to a watershed decision in the realm of campaign finance. The decisively divided court came to a 5-4 ruling for the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, with the majority ruling in favor of the Alabama businessman, Shaun McCutcheon, and the Republican National Committee, Mr. McCutcheon’s co-plaintiff. This decision removed certain donation limits for individuals that were established in the 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo as a means to prevent corruption.
Prior to the Court’s decision, individuals were allowed to donate $2,600 to each candidate every two years without exceeding $48,600 and $32,400 to a specific party committee without exceeding $74,600 along with caveats for donating to other types of political committees. These two figures produced the total combined donation limit of $123,200 every two years, the maximum donation for individual candidates added to the maximum donation for party committees.
Mr. McCutcheon’s case arose after his 27th legal donation. Although all his donations were under the $2,600 limit, the FEC barred him from exceeding the aggregated limit of $48,600. Mr. McCutcheon and the Supreme Court majority agreed that the aggregate limits on campaign donations were unconstitutional and infringed on First Amendment rights. The Court’s decision now allows an individual to make as many legal donations as he or she desires under the protection of free speech.
“Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so, too, does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects.” wrote Justice John G. Roberts for the five justices in the majority opinion. “If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades—despite the profound offense such spectacles cause—it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”
Justice Stephen Breyer represented the disagreeing opinion of the other four justices in an uncommon oral dissent. He referred to the decision as one “that fails to recognize the difference between influence resting upon public opinion and influence bought by money alone; that overturns key precedent; that creates huge loopholes in the law; and that undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform.”
While the decision has sparked discontent in those looking to play party politics, it seems it is even more important to look back at the decision in Buckley v. Valeo. This Supreme Court case is the one that decided that spending money is free speech. While most can agree that an individual has a right to spend his or her hard-earned money as he or she chooses, does that definitively mean that campaign financing is the same as free speech?
Prior to the recent ruling, an individual could donate a whopping $123,200 between candidates and committees. According to the 2011 U.S. Census Bureau, that amount is more money than most households made in two years, the same length of time in which donations were limited. Wealthier Americans on both sides of the political spectrum were allowed to donate twice the median income for U.S. households.
According to the decision, if an individual desired to support a party, he or she could now make legal donations to as many members of Congress as desired. With 199 Democrats in the House as of March 4, 2014 and 53 Democrats in the Senate as of Oct. 31, 2013, an individual could easily pump over half a million dollars into a party without ever donating to a single committee. That’s more than most households, not individuals, will make in a decade. Assuming maximum legal donations, an individual can now donate $655,200 to Democratic candidates and $722,800 if he or she donates solely to Republican candidates.
In fact, Justice Elena Kagan tabulated a figure even more staggering when considering party committees. “If you take off the aggregate limits,” she said to the lawyer representing the Republican National Committee, “people will be allowed, if you put together the national committees and all the State committees and all the candidates in the House and the Senate, it comes to over $3.5 million. So I can write checks totaling $3.5 million to the Republican Party committees and all its candidates…even before I start writing checks to independent PACs.”
It would take over 200 median households donating half of their entire income to match that immense donation. In a society where free speech can be quantified by dollar bills and seven-digit donations, when does free speech become priced luxury? When a politically motivated individual can hold equal sway as 200 households is free speech still considered free?
“There is no right in our democracy more basic,” wrote Justice Roberts, “than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”
However, while the Supreme Court decided that the government had no right to infringe on the political free speech of wealthy donators, Justice Roberts and those in the majority opinion did nothing to protect the free speech of those who will never have money to buy political clout. If there truly is no right more basic than the right to participate in elections, then who stands to defend against those who put a price on free speech?