Editorial: The selling of American democracy

Published April 4, 2014

The U.S. Supreme Court continues to link spending money with free speech so that Americans with the most cash have the loudest voices in elections. That ignores decades of established law, and it is a dangerous road for democracy. The court's latest attack on campaign contribution limits this week gives those with the deepest pockets even more influence, invites corruption and increases pressure on all citizens to ignore attack ads and become more independent-thinking participants in the electoral process.

The Supreme Court's most conservative justices struck down the limits on the combined total contributions that individual donors can give to federal candidates, political parties and other political committees. A single donor had been limited to giving no more than $123,200 in total contributions to federal candidates and committees in one election cycle. That is more than enough for all but the wealthiest contributors. Contribution limits of $5,200 per election cycle to individual federal candidates and other limits on contributions to each committee remain in place for now. But the court's 5-4 opinion in McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission removes the aggregate limits and enables wealthy donors to give the maximum to as many candidates and political committees as they want. That increases the influence of the few at the expense of the majority of Americans.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who wrote the plurality opinion, illogically argues that protecting the free speech rights of wealthy donors by overturning political contribution limits is no different from protecting the free speech rights of unpopular protests such as flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades. But free speech should not be directly tied to the amount of money one can spend. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a powerful dissent that described the importance of protecting the public interest in "collective speech" that is effectively drowned out by the millions spent by the wealthy few.

"The First Amendment advances not only the individual's right to engage in political speech,'' Breyer wrote, "but also the public's interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters.''

Limits on campaign contributions have been previously upheld to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. Yet Roberts' pinched definition of corruption essentially would require bags of cash to be delivered to a member of Congress in return for a particular vote. He refuses to acknowledge that enormous political contributions corrupt the process. Breyer noted the appearance of corruption to Americans so disillusioned by the influence of money in politics and government further erodes our democracy.

The court's latest attack on contribution limits comes as no surprise. In recent years the Supreme Court eased rules about groups airing ads close to an election, and it overturned an effort to level the playing field for candidates facing rich, self-funded opponents. The 2010 Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money and gave rise to the shadowy super political action committees that can drown out the candidates themselves.

Absent constitutional amendments or a more enlightened Supreme Court, there are a few ways to mitigate the damage. As Roberts noted, Congress could pass new limits on the way money is transferred — some would say laundered — through party and political committees. There also should be more effort to report all campaign contributions faster and online, so at least voters can track who is giving how much to whom.

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Ultimately, the Supreme Court has increased the responsibility of citizens to participate in democracy. The court is making it easier for the wealthy to buy control of government. The best antiseptic is for Americans to pay closer attention, hold elected leaders accountable for their actions — and vote.