The Folly of the Supreme Court
Four years ago, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision discarded a century of precedent and drew blood from our electoral process. In a highly controversial 5-4 decision, the Court held that corporations and unions were entitled to the same First Amendment rights as people—a foolhardy scheme that Justice Stevens wisely called “a rejection of the common sense of the American people.”
The resulting infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars from secret donors in undisclosed amounts into political campaigns has marginalized voters and left our democracy more vulnerable to corruption.
And it just got worse.
Four short years after Citizens United and in time for the 2014 mid-term elections, the Supreme Court has once again taken an axe to what was left of the post-Watergate reforms to our country’s campaign finance system.
On April 3rd in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court struck down the limits on the aggregate amount that any individual can give to candidates and political parties in an election cycle. The Court erased the overall limit of $48,600 for political contributions individuals can make to candidates, and the overall limit of $70,800 for contributions to political parties and political action committees (PACs).
Shaun McCutcheon, a wealthy Alabama businessman, and the Republican National Committee brought the suit against the Federal Election Commission, arguing before the Court that an individual should be able to give $1,776 to as many candidates as one chooses. While this amount seems reasonable, it represents a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
For decades the Supreme Court has upheld contribution caps because limitless donations exacerbate the risk of consolidating democratic power into the hands of the extraordinarily wealthy few. Striking down the aggregate contribution limits allows wealthy donors to give unlimited amounts of money to federal candidates, raising the specter of corruption and tipping the scales of democracy toward moneyed special interests.
I feel so strongly about this issue that I joined several House colleagues in filing an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in this case. Our brief argued that the Court should defer to the determination of Congress that limits on contributions to candidates can reduce corruption, and thus outweigh any perceived impact on free speech.
The Court’s decision is another poison pill for our democracy that will undoubtedly increase the flood of money in our elections. Until Congress enacts and the people ratify a constitutional amendment to grant it full authority over campaign contributions and expenditures, the American people should at least be able to hold their electoral system accountable through transparency. Californians know the power of transparency. Because campaign advertisers for Proposition 23 had to disclose their sponsors, voters learned that major oil companies were funding the entire effort to weaken greenhouse gas emission rules. The proposition was overwhelmingly rejected.
Congress should act now to ensure that voters know who is funding political campaigns by passing strict disclosure laws, mitigating the poisonous effects of the McCutcheon case. In the meantime, the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne writes, “Send in the oligarchs.”
Anna G. Eshoo
Member of Congress