Time for Supreme Court to stand firm on campaign donation limits

On both ends of the political spectrum, and the middle as well, there’s a sense that the political system is broken—and not just this week.

While there’s plenty that Americans on the left and right disagree about, they and almost everyone in between are convinced that in Washington and in state capitals across the country, those with big money to throw around get attention the rest of us could only dream of.

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They’ve got a point. But the sad truth is that it could get much, much worse.

Three years ago, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United, the ruling opened the floodgates to corporate money in our elections. Thanks to that decision, corporate executives were free to spend limitless money from their corporate treasuries to trash (or occasionally support) candidates for political office.

That decision, combined with a lower court ruling decided on similar grounds, introduced us to the likes of Sheldon Adelson, Charles and David Koch, and Foster Fries: billionaires who spent freely to attack President Obama and support the GOP.

And while that money may not have bought the White House, it certainly bought access. Republican leaders rushed to arrange private meetings with their most generous SuperPAC supporters, even as they told us there was no quid pro quo to worry about.

But the truth was obvious. Big spending rich guys got treated one way; the rest of us got treated another.

Next week, the Supreme Court is hearing another case that would make the problem even worse.

Currently, the law limits donations to $2,600 per federal candidate per election (primaries count as separate elections), $32,400 per year per national party committee and $10,000 per state party committee.

In addition, there’s an aggregate cap on donations in a single election cycle to $123,200 per person. (Married couples and families with children over 18 can, collectively, give much, much more.)

That’s more than twice the income of the average American family, but it’s not enough for Shaun McCutcheon, who wanted to blow past the donation limit in 2012. He sued to have the limit called unconstitutional, and the Republican Party sued because, well, they wanted the money.

A favorable ruling for the plaintiffs would certainly be a windfall for anyone with limitless money and a desire to curry favor on Capitol Hill.

All told, if the Supreme Court were to embrace McCutcheon’s argument, a deep-pocketed donor would be free to 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 that’s just the start.

With a little legal maneuvering, that same donor could pass money through dozens of different committees and on to a single candidate—who would know exactly who to thank for the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars that suddenly appeared in her campaign coffers.

But wait. There’s more!

Since the legal basis for the aggregate limit (the total sum of money one donor can give in an election cycle) rests on virtually identical legal footing to the individual limit (the amount of money one donor can give to any particular candidate), a decision to strike down the former would potentially lead to another decision obliterating the latter.

That would mean million dollar checks legally being passed from the hand of interested billionaires to the coffers of obliging politicians.

No matter where you find yourself on the political spectrum, the prospect of that system is repulsive.

On a fundamental level, democracy means that every one of us has an equal claim on our government. We can’t all get what we want every time, but the mechanism for solving our conflicts rests on a foundational premise that each of us, no matter our standing, deserves an equal opportunity to make our case in our civic debate.

That’s not compatible with a system in which plutocrats and private jet owners can train politicians to sit, roll over, and beg for enormous campaign contributions.

There’s good reason to believe that the Supreme Court will uphold the law and decline to send us down that steep slippery slope. But the fact that this case has reached the Court at all is cause for real concern – and left, right, or center, it should be a wakeup call for anyone concerned with the future of our democracy.

Marge Baker is the executive vice president of People For the American Way Foundation.