Pelosi: Campaign finance ruling is 'existential threat' to democracy

Greg Nash

The Supreme Court decision to eliminate a decades-old cap on individual campaign donations poses "an existential threat" to the nation's democracy, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) charged Thursday.

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The California Democrat, who has long championed legislation to limit the influence of money in politics, warned that the high court's ruling would only heighten the power of well-heeled interests in Washington at the expense of the vast majority of Americans.

"It wasn't surprising what the court did, this being the court that decided Citizens United," Pelosi said, referring to the 2010 ruling that eliminated caps on corporate and union donations. "But it adds great insult to a terrible injury to our democracy.

"This is a very existential threat to who we are and how we do our campaigning," she said, adding that “it should be something that should be roundly rejected."

Pelosi acknowledged the ruling doesn't discriminate between the parties and that Democrats will now have access to more money from their wealthy donors, just as the Republicans will from theirs. But that doesn't excuse a system, she argued, where a minority of wealthy people — regardless of their party — hold outsized sway over the election landscape.

"Just because the ante is raised for everyone does not make it right," she said. "Is this just supposed to be a money war?"

In its 5-4 decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court struck down the limit on the number of candidates to which an individual donor may contribute in a given two-year election cycle. Behind Chief Justice John Roberts, the majority found that aggregate campaign limits, imposed in the 1970s, infringe on First Amendment rights to free speech.

"The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse," Roberts wrote.

Writing in dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer argued that some caps on individuals' election spending are appropriate to prevent a few wealthy donors from drowning out the voices of everyone else.

"Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard," Breyer wrote.

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill were quick to hail the decision as a victory for constitutionally guaranteed rights.

“What I think this means is that freedom of speech is being upheld,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Wednesday. “You all have the freedom to write what you want to write. Donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give.”

Pelosi, who raises enormous amounts of money for her party, acknowledged that Democrats have hardly shied away from fundraising efforts, despite their calls to reduce the amount of money in campaigns. But the only way to reach that legislative goal, she conceded, is to exploit the very election finance system she wants to upend.

"The fact is that you have to raise money to win the election," she said. "You're not going to unilaterally disarm, but if you can win the election, then that's where you differentiate and you go forward with initiatives to change the laws under which our campaign funding proceeds.

"It's difficult," she added. "You can't win unless you have the resources to fight."

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