How Much ‘Political Speech’ Can You Buy?

The ruling by the Supreme Court in the case McCutcheon v. FEC could have been predicted. This is the same court that gave us the ruling on Citizens United v. FEC (with the exception of Elena Kagan replacing John Paul Stevens). While Citizens United determined that corporations and unions are people and that money equals free speech, the McCutcheon verdict goes a step further by striking down maximum limits on campaign contributions.

The McCutcheon verdict actually overturns a 1976 ruling in the case Buckley v. Valeo in which the court ruled that independent spending is political speech and is protected by the First Amendment; however, contributions could be capped in order to prevent corruption. The campaign limits were put in place by Congress following the Watergate scandal to discourage large contributors from buying votes and to restore faith in the system.

So what are the specifics of this latest ruling? The McCutcheon ruling only concerns contributions from individuals. There are still laws in place that affect corporations and unions in this particular instance. It does not undermine limits on individual contributions to candidates for president and Congress, which is currently set at $2,600 per election.

The ruling states that individuals have the right to give the legal maximum amount to candidates for Congress and president (as well as to the parties and PACs) without worrying that they will come up against the limit placed on all contributions, which is placed at $123,200 for the 2014 election.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, stated:

“There is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, in agreement with the chief justice, wrote his own opinion stating that he would have preferred to wipe out all contribution limits.

So, apparently our republic is open to those who have deeper pockets. This is nothing that is really new. In the decades following the Civil War, politicians were controlled by Tammany Hall in New York City. This would even continue into the beginning of the 20th century when the wealthy industrialists of the day had more clout than even the president.

Since the 2010 Citizens United ruling, we have seen what an influx of money can do in an election. The money spent in the 2012 election cycle was by far greater than any election to date, and it is likely that the 2016 election will break this record as even more campaign finance limits have now been struck down.

It is technically illegal to bribe an elected official, and it is illegal for an elected official to accept that bribe. However, with these latest rulings (Citizens United and McCutcheon), is this any different than just legal bribery? The more money you have, the more “political speech” you possess… or at least that is what they want you to think. In reality, the more money you have and can contribute, the more you can buy that vote or influence that party platform.

Justice Breyer wrote in his dissent that “if the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision may well open a floodgate.” Considering the aftermath of Citizens United, he is probably correct. Our elections will no longer service the people as a whole, just those with the deepest pockets. It will continue to disenfranchise more voters and drive them away from the polls.

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