Given all the cash that flows into political campaigns and the endless barrage of negative ads it generates, it is easy to view last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling easing campaign finance restrictions as a concession to the powerful moneyed interests.
And it’s entirely possible its impact on campaigns will be less than admirable.
Nevertheless, the thoughtful 5-4 decision on Wednesday is foremost an affirmation of free speech and an acknowledgment that citizens can think for themselves.
The court in McCutcheon vs. FEC struck down the limit on the total amount an individual can contribute to various federal campaigns over a two-year campaign cycle. It follows the court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling overturning restrictions on how much corporations and unions can donate to campaigns.
It left alone the caps on how much an individual can give to a particular candidate at $5,200 — $2,600 per primary and general election.
But the court ruled the limits on the overall amount donors could give to various candidates ($48,600) and political committees ($74,600) over two years was unconstitutional.
The arbitrary restriction provided no demonstrable safeguard against corruption as supporters asserted.
As Chief Justice John Roberts noted in writing the majority opinion, if it is legal to give nine candidates $5,200 each, how does it suddenly become a corrupt practice to give the same amount to an additional candidate?
It is naive to deny campaign contributions influence candidates — even if it is not a corrupt quid pro quo relationship. Elected officials obviously are likely to listen to contributors.
But that hardly means contributors direct policy.
As Roberts explained, “Constituents have the right to support candidates who share their views and concerns. Representatives are not to follow constituent orders, but can be expected to be cognizant of and responsive to these concerns. Such responsiveness is key to the very concept of self governance through elected officials.”
A lot of things affect political decisions — civic groups, radio shock jocks, political commentators, letter-writing campaigns. No one would suggest — we hope — restricting them, regardless of how unfair or inaccurate their claims, because they might have an undue influence.
Campaign contributions may seem different, but they provide a way for Americans to express their views. Limiting the number of candidates they may support limits their freedom of expression.
Roberts pointedly wrote, “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 can endorse.”
By eliminating the overall cap, the ruling may increase contributions to the political parties, which are more transparent than the political action committees that weren’t under the cap.
GOP chairman Reince Priebus told The Wall Street Journal that under the contested rules, “... the groups that can raise the most disclose the least.”
Of course, the ruling’s impact might not be so salutary. Democracy can be a messy business. But it’s better to trust American voters to figure things out than have government restrict, as Roberts said, their “participation in the democratic process.”