Should government be for sale to the highest bidder?
Most of us would say no. However, in recent decisions a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court has been chipping away at our nation's campaign finance laws because of a flawed equation that money equals speech, and a narrow and naive view of what qualifies as corruption.
The question will come before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of McCutcheon vs. FEC, scheduled for oral argument on Tuesday. At stake is the abolishment of aggregate federal contribution limits by individuals. If the court overturns current law, a single donor will be able to spend as much as $3.6 million in federal campaigns in a single election cycle. The current limit is an already a hefty $123,200.
Although all legal precedent suggests that contribution limits should be affirmed, a majority of the current court has exhibited aversion to campaign finance reforms that have passed in the last century.
McCutcheon is the bad sequel to the 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates to unlimited spending by corporations and wealthy individuals who make so called "independent" campaign expenditures. One result of the Citizens United case is that for the first time since 1906, corporations can legally contribute to political campaigns.
If the court also decides to overturn individual contribution limits in the McCutcheon case, it will be putting the nail in the coffin for reforms that have attempted to mitigate the influence of moneyed interests effectively buying public policy. Essentially, the wealthiest 1 percent will be able to buy elections. We will return to the very bad old pre-Watergate days, when huge contributions were passed to candidates in brown paper bags.
Despite the strong historic precedents affirming contribution limits, the court has increasingly equated free speech with both unlimited contributions and expenditures. The McCutcheon case is about the corruption of our democracy. It's about a relatively few wealthy people believing that they can spend as much money to influence politicians as money can buy.
No one's free speech or participation is being threatened in McCutcheon. In fact, Common Cause contends that truly free speech is obliterated when the very wealthy use their profits to buy influence that makes them richer at our expense.
The size of your wallet shouldn't determine the impact of your voice in our democracy. Our current system is not "free speech," but instead very expensive speech that only the wealthy can afford. And, it's even more expensive when the officials who benefit from this largesse end up making bad public policy for which the rest of us end up paying.
So, what's the answer to a broken campaign finance system that is nothing short of state-sponsored legalized bribery? In the short term, Congress, the FEC and the SEC must require more disclosure of political spending and advertising. Corporations should be required to disclose political spending to their shareholders. So-called super PACs, which usually become little more than unofficial arms of campaigns, should be more closely regulated so that their expenditures are truly independent from those campaigns.
In the medium term, we need to pass small, donor-funded public finance systems at the state and federal level. Such programs have worked well in Maine, Arizona and Connecticut. Even Florida has a system that worked well for statewide offices, until our governor tapped into his personal fortune to evade its required expenditure limits. Encouraging small contributions from individual sources frees candidates from having to scrounge for large contributors who seek a return on their investment.
Long-term, we need to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, affirm both the right and the obligation of Congress to regulate the role of money in politics, and reverse the court's decisions that have equated free speech with unlimited contributions and expenditures.
But if the McCutcheon case overturns the current, already very generous contribution limits, the very wealthy will be able to spend almost 30 times more to effectively buy politicians.
Peter Butzin is the state chair and a member of the national governing board of Common Cause. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.