There are a lot of things that money can’t buy: happiness, family, love.  Political power, however, has always been up for sale.  From the vote buying days of Boss Tweed to the lobbying efforts of today’s corporations, those with money have had a louder voice in the arena of democracy, often at the expense of the impoverished.  While America has made substantial progress in fighting the corruption and fraud that plagued the system in the late 1800s, those with money still exert tremendous influence over our government today, specifically through campaign contributions, money given to politicians running for office.

During the 1970s, the United States took a major step forward in equalizing the political playing field as it enacted the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), which sought to “promote fair practices in the conduct of election campaigns for Federal political offices.”  In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the Act was amended to cap the total amounts of money that individuals could donate to political campaigns.  These caps on campaign contributions became known as aggregate limits.

This past afternoon, the Supreme Court shocked many as it’s ruling on the McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission case determined that these aggregate limits are unconstitutional.

Facts of the Case

Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman who identifies as a Republican-activist, believed that aggregate limits violated fundamental constitutional rights.  Earlier, McCutcheon donated $33,088 to 16 federal candidates for office but when he tried to donate additional funds to 12 more candidates, he was stopped by the aggregate limits on campaign contributions.  Believing that these limits restricted his constitutional rights, McCutcheon argued that campaign contributions were an integral part of free speech granted by the Bill of Rights and that restricting the amount one can donate to a political candidate was an infringement upon this basic right.  At first, McCutcheon’s case was shot down at the District Court, but after appealing the decision, the case eventually made it’s way to the Supreme Court.

The Ruling

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of McCutcheon on a 5-4 vote that decided it was unconstitutional to impose the aggregate limits.  Chief Justice Roberts delivered the majority opinion:

There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.  Citizens can exercise that right in a variety of ways: They can run for office themselves, vote, urge others to vote for a particular candidate, volunteer to work on a campaign, and contribute to a candidate’s campaign. This case is about the last of those options.  The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute.

The final decision was closely in line with what McCutcheon wanted.  The $48,600 aggregate limit on donations was no longer constitutional and rich donors could donate to an unlimited number of political candidates of their choice.  Although there are still some restrictions in place (like the $2600 cap for donations to a single candidate), this recent decision allows donors to work around these restrictions and permits individuals to send up to $3.5 million to their favorite political parties (yes, that’s a lot more than the old $48,600 limit).


Increasing campaign donations can be harmful.  Justice Breyer harshly criticized the decision as he delivered the dissenting opinion:

Today a majority of the Court overrules this holding. It is wrong to do so… It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions. It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign… today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.

Back in the days of Tweed, money was a corrupting factor and our laws have worked hard to limit the money flowing around in politics.  To this day, candidates running for office could always use extra funding to invest in campaign materials and advertising to boost their election chances.  As a result, a natural relationship forms between the rich who have funds and the politicians who need the cash.  As the politicians and rich fulfill each other’s interests, it’s the poor people’s interests that really get left in the dust.  Elected officials tend to pursue policies that are in line with what their donors want, which isn’t always what the public wants.  Justice Breyer warns of this potential corruption that could result as additional money starts to flow into Washington.

And it doesn’t stop there.  As more funds are out there to be claimed, political candidates and incumbent politicians are likely to spend more time fundraising.  Democracy becomes a game where it’s about which candidate has the most funds and effective campaign strategy, rather than the best actual policies for the people.

Who Wins and Who Loses?

The clear winners here are the ultra-wealthy.  Many of the millionaires and billionaires previously limited by the $48,600 cap will jump into the political arena with a stronger influence.  As the poorer people, who can’t afford to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to political campaigns, get trampled by those who can, structural problems like racism, hunger, and poverty can only persist.  If the voices of the poor are never heard, how will our political system be able to stop the problems that affect them the most?  Our government needs to realize the danger of letting our representatives become a part of a Dollar Democracy.


[Image Attribute: augustfinster]