The Court’s Decision on ‘McCutcheon’ Will Empower the Oligarchs, Say Reformers

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This artist rendering shows the Supreme Court Justices. (AP Photo/Dana Verkouteren)
An artist's rendering shows the Supreme Court Justices. (AP Image/Dana Verkouteren)

The Supreme Court further opened the doors of our democracy to big money in its ruling today in McCutcheon v. FEC. In a five-four split along ideological lines, the Court ruled that overall limits on individual campaign contributions were unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The Court left in place the cap on donations to a single candidate that conservative donor Shaun McCutcheon also challenged in the case. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas moved to strike that limit down as well.

“I was disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision today,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who, along with former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), enacted the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002. Many of the provisions of that Act have since been rolled back by Supreme Court decisions, including the 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. “I am concerned that today’s ruling may represent the latest step in an effort by a majority of the Court to dismantle entirely the longstanding structure of campaign finance law erected to limit the undue influence of special interests on American politics.” McCain said he worried that the ruling would lead to a spate of campaign finance and corruption scandals.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) denounced the ruling saying it would fundamentally undermine American democracy. “The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process,” he said in a statement.

Heather Gerken on Dollars v. Democracy
Legal scholar Heather Gerken, who teaches election and constitutional law at Yale — and who spoke with Bill Moyers about the case last October — said today’s decision would have far-reaching effects on our campaign finance system. “The Court downplays the significance of its decision, but they are wrong to do so. If the Court understood how money runs through the political system, they could not have offered such reassurances. This decision is going to cause the parties to restructure how they finance elections going forward, and we’ll all feel the effects for years to come.”

At The Daily Beast, Lawrence Lessig, a reform advocate and law professor at Harvard University, argued that the decision didn’t take the framer’s intent into account in its narrow definition of “corruption” as a quid pro quo exchange of cash for policy between donors and politicians. Corruption, he writes, can also occur when politicians are dependent on one class of citizen. “Already we have a system in which Congress is dependent upon the tiniest fraction of the 1% to fund its campaigns. I’ve estimated the number of relevant funders is no more than 150,000 (about the number of Americans named ‘Lester.’) If aggregate contribution limits are struck, that number will fall dramatically,” he wrote.

The decision outraged good government groups, who have been working since 2010 to stem the flow of special-interest money into politics following Citizens United. In that decision, the Court’s conservative majority held that money is speech, and that the federal government could not restrict it by limiting “third party” campaign spending by corporations and unions. That ruling gave rise to super PACs and the dark money groups that deep-pocketed wealthy donors use to funnel money to support politicians who share their interests.

“[N]o regular person can compete with Charles and David Koch.” — Robert Weissman, Public Citizen
“The Supreme Court in the McCutcheon decision today overturned 40 years of national policy and 38 years of judicial precedent,” said campaign finance reformer Fred Wertheimer, who heads Democracy 21, a nonprofit group working to protect fairness and integrity in elections. “The Court’s decisions have empowered a new class of American political oligarchs. These Court decisions [Citizens United and McCutcheon] have come at the enormous expense of the voices and interests of more than 300 million Americans.”

“Yes, you and I now have the ‘right’ to spend as much as we want, too. But no regular person can compete with Charles and David Koch,” wrote Robert Weissman, president of the good government advocacy group Public Citizen. “There are literally only a few hundred people who can and will take advantage of this horrendous ruling. But those are exactly the people our elected officials will now be answering to.

“That is not democracy. It is plutocracy. Today’s reckless Supreme Court ruling threatens so many of the things we love about our country. No matter what five Supreme Court justices say, the First Amendment was never intended to provide a giant megaphone for the wealthiest to use to shout down the rest of us.”

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich echoed these sentiments in a Facebook post, writing that the decision will allow wealthy individuals to purchase “unparalleled personal influence in Washington,” “drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens.” He added: “This is the most brazen invitation to oligarchy in Supreme Court history.” Reich called for an amendment to the Constitution stating that “(1) money is not speech under the First Amendment, (2) corporations are not people, and (3) we the people have the right to set limits on how much money individuals and corporations can spend on elections.”

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  • Anonymous

    I LIKE IT :-)

  • John Kurc

    He who has the most $$$$ wins. Sickening!

  • y.slobodinskaya

    Going as far back as I can remember, the political divide has been all about people vs oligarchy. The “1%” needs to use underhanded means to get some of that 99% on their side, because they’d never win elections anywhere, otherwise.

    Fact of the matter is, we’re still feeling the repercussions of 20 years of Republican presidencies. 5 Republican nominees, outvoting our 4 Democratic nominees. There’s only one way to flip that majority, and both sides know it. With this ruling, they’ve increased their advantage a bit further, but we’ve still got this country’s evolving demographics on our side, and it’s far from being game over.

    Money only gets them so far. We can still turn this around. 2014 may be a longshot, but we’re still looking pretty good for 2016 onward. We can still turn this around. Just not if we keep pushing this idea that democracy is dead. If you really believe that, you don’t understand the role money actually plays. It’s a huge problem, but it’s not the be all end all here.

  • Barry

    “(1) money is not speech under the First Amendment, (2) corporations are not people, and (3) we the people have the right to set limits on how much money individuals and corporations can spend on elections.”

    Works for me. Wonder how many states can be bought?

  • Benjamin Dorsey

    The Supreme Court has way too much power. These unelected officials should not have the ability to have the final say on everything they want to put their hands on. If a group of unelected officials can overrule the will of our elected officials without limitation, how exactly is that a functional democracy?

  • JonThomas

    It’s too late. The only candidates you will see running are those who can get the support of the donors of the political parties.

    If a person wants to run for office, but does not tow the party line, the party will withdraw, or refuse support.

    From this point forward, the candidates chosen to run with party backing will be people who already agree with the party and are willing to push the agendas of the party donors.

    It will not matter what they say in public in order to get elected, if they want to continue to receive the Party’s blessing, they will have to tow the line.

    No one will be honestly pushing for change. No one will be advocating for reforming the system which perpetually benefits this ideologically similar group of people. Power is self-serving.

    The public will not even hear about people who think differently. The media outlets which showcase the candidates are owned by these same power brokers.

    The only way it will change is if the power dries up. Because the recipients of the power are the ones who benefit, they will not reform the infrastructure to see the power go elsewhere. The only way restructuring will happen is with changes to the power source. In other words, there would have to be a catastrophic, or severe situation which demands action.

    Even the complete banking and market crash of just a few years ago was NOT enough… they had the power to reach into the public’s pocket and bail themselves out.

    Unfortunately, the only recent example of a change was 9-11. However, the changes from that time were not ‘citizen friendly.’

  • Anonymous

    I have volunteered in elections since 1972, for one party or the other, for local candidates as well as national. Voted in every one, sometimes for Rs, sometimes for Ds and sometimes for Is. Probably time to just stop having elections. Sell the offices at auction. Highest bidder gets it. We’re looking at “Animal Farm” here. It’d make for good reality TV, though. Go see Adelson, the Kochs, maybe Soros or “The Man From Omaha” on the TeeVee. I’m done.

  • gpsarch

    The founding fathers argument for the Supreme Court holds
    dear to the idea that all peoples are subject to the law of the land and shall
    be treated equally regardless of “status or creed”.

    And there where the root lays bare at the heart of it all,
    ounce you’ve bought the rule of law you have control of our destiny.

    pedro santos

  • Anonymous

    The founding fathers argument for the Supreme Court holds
    dear to the idea that all peoples are subject to the law of the land and shall
    be treated equally regardless of “status or creed”.

    And there where the root lays bare at the heart of it all,
    once you’ve bought the rule of law you have control of our destiny.

    pedro santos

  • Bruce Miller

    Boycott the 1%. Do your research. Turn off your TVs. Stop giving them the resources to buy America. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you spend money everyday. Find out who buying up your speech and reduce what to give them.