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Editorial: McCutcheon decision dangerous

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 03, 2014 5:00 AM

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The United States has had a long history with campaign financing, a troubling history of late. Balancing the competing interests of ensuring free speech and warding off corruption is no easy feat, but the Supreme Court has again tipped the scale in favor of the former with its latest ruling.

The case in question is McCutcheon v. FEC, in which a wealthy Alabama businessman sued to remove the limitation on money individuals can give to political candidates per election cycle. McCutcheon argued this cap on contributions was unconstitutional, a violation of the First Amendment.

The court, furthering the precedent it has set in recent years, ruled in favor of McCutcheon in a decision that further corrodes the already-flimsy barrier holding back unlimited campaign contributions. It’s a decision that will have serious ramifications in congressional races, particularly in Iowa, a state with elections that tend to attract national attention.

The issue at stake is the aggregate limit of contributions, originally instituted by legislation in the wake of the Watergate scandal, which the Supreme Court struck down in a 5-4 vote. The court removed the $123,000 total cap for all contributions, meaning individuals can give up to the maximum amount for each political campaign or candidate they choose without having to adhere to an overall limit.

In a political environment inundated with organizations such as Super PACS, which have no limitations on political spending and are independent of campaigns, a ruling such as this is perhaps just the next logical step forward. It’s true, after all, that we no longer live in the post-Nixon era of suspicion, and concerns of corruption in the political system aren’t as pressing, for better or worse.

In addition, there’s an argument to be made that with full disclosure of who is spending what and on which campaigns, the public can more readily hold politicians and major donors accountable than they can with Super PACS, whose shady finances are not so readily available for public digestion.

But let’s not forget that it was the Supreme Court that created the framework for the Super-PAC-and-plutocrat-inundated state of American elections in the first place, particularly with the case of Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed for unlimited political spending independent of campaigns.

Regardless, with this ruling, individuals can now play a much larger role in campaigns, and the number of campaigns they can give to could drastically increase as well. While the limit for individual campaign donations is still $2,600, striking down the aggregate limit for individual campaign cycles opens the door for wealthy donors to give to as many as they see fit instead of just a handful.

McCutcheon could also set an unfortunate precedent for future court decisions. In making their judgments, justices often look to prior rulings. After Citizens United opened the floodgates for political spending in general, McCutcheon could be the catalyst for cases arguing that any limit on contributions is unconstitutional.

Under the Roberts court, these kinds of challenges have been mostly successful. With decisions typically divided by ideological lines, unless the makeup of the court changes, the outcome of the next challenge could mean more campaign-finance limits struck down and an even greater flood of money from a small group of wealthy donors saturating American politics.

If such an outcome occurs, the buck then stops with the American people. The Supreme Court is not beholden to public opinion, but Congress is. As with Citizens United, McCutcheon will result in a lot of hand-wringing on whether the balance of free speech and corruption prevention has been wrongly offset. And if the public believes it has, like in 1974, it’s up to them to rebalance the scales.


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