Convinced we don't have quite enough cash sloshing around the American political system already, the Supreme Court did the nation's super rich a solid on Wednesday and made virtually certain that legal corruption in elections will reach great new heights in the near future.
In yet another one of those sharply ideological 5–4 decisions that have become standard in recent years, the court's conservative majority struck down federal limits on the "aggregate" (or total) amount citizens can donate to candidates and political committees during a given election cycle, overturning established law and making a pretty twisted mockery of the still commonly held idea that ours is a legitimately democratic society.
The decision follows in the warped tradition of the notorious 2010 Citizens United ruling that opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate money in US elections and gave birth to that uniquely American monster known as the Super PAC—groups that are free to raise as much money as they can squeeze from the rich. Embraced first by conservative business barons and subsequently by cynical, terrified Democrats like Barack Obama, these political action committees on steroids can be traced directly to the dark recesses of Chief Justice John Roberts's brain.
"Roberts thinks that the First Amendment protects everything except actual bribery, and he thinks spending money is pure speech," said Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and founder of the Campaign Legal Center. (In 2012, Potter helped Stephen Colbert to create a Super PAC in a made-for-TV stunt that showed viewers how twisted the system had become.)
"Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects," Roberts wrote in his opinion. "Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to… quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner 'influence over or access to' elected officials or political parties."
In other words, Roberts believes that the only form of corruption possible is the mythical scenario in which an elected official is given a bag of cash in exchange for a vote on a piece of legislation. But it is much more common for banks, energy companies, and other corporate interests to deploy their vast resources to prop up entire movements that implicitly or explicitly advocate for their interests. Corporate lobbyists don't trade cash for votes—they threaten to support the electoral opponents of members of Congress who vote against their "cause" and ply friendly legislators with golf trips to exotic lands and other assorted goodies less easily traced than money. Then again, according to Roberts, trading favors isn't a problem because money is speech, baby, and the losers who don't have any should shut up and stay on the sidelines of public life.
"It's part of a step-by-step effort by the majority on the Supreme Court to basically destroy the campaign finance laws," said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, a group that advocates against money in politics.
The case sprang from a legal challenge launched by Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, who, after donating $33,000 to various candidates in 2012, decided that in order to make his voice heard he needed to donate the patriotic amount of $1,776 each to 12 more campaigns. That would have put him over the $48,000 limit in total donations to candidates during one election cycle permitted by federal campaign finance regulations (which he knew perfectly well when he attempted to donate, since this was a conscious step toward striking the law down). Feigning outrage at the inability to speak freely via a plus-size bank account, McCutcheon is now convinced a new day has arrived for the enterprising, successful people of this country such as himself.
"I hope that it actually brings more money into politics," he told me when I reached him by phone, a thick Southern drawl serving as a sort of comforting filter for terrifying ideas about how power should work in America. "This is supposed to be a free country. I don't know why anyone would want to limit the dissemination of ideas, especially political ideas. I guess they don't like freedom."
What "freedom" means here is that the 646 Americans who hit the roughly $120,000 cap for total giving (to candidates and to committees) during the 2012 cycle are about to have a whole lot more influence over the country the rest of us will be living in for years to come. And the lobbying industry will explode because those professional influence peddlers hired by corporations and other interest groups, already expected to bundle and funnel campaign contributions, will (like everyone else) no longer be subject to any limits on political giving. Ironically, their lives could actually grow more stressful even as their sway over US policy grows.
"Lobbyists will think, Oh, no, now we have no place to hide," said Jeff Connaughton, a recovering Washington lobbyist and former top aide to Vice President Joe Biden. "I used to breathe a sigh of relief [as a lobbyist] when I hit the cap. Now the campaign finance system is going to both empower lobbyists further and squeeze them harder."
Despite the dire state of affairs—and perhaps because I sounded despondent—some reformers I spoke to insisted that even if the decision could set the stage for totally gutting the few remaining laws limiting money's influence on politics, the apocalypse is not nigh.
"Before we slit our wrists, there are policies that can deal with this," said David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, ticking off various state-based efforts to curb political corruption, before acknowledging that what had been one of the more promising ones—the push in New York to expand New York City's small-dollar matching system statewide—just got killed by neoliberal Governor Andrew Cuomo during the latest round of budget wrangling in Albany. Somewhat more promising reform drives continue in states like California.
Florida Representative Alan Grayson, a Democrat who told me that he is "literally the only member of Congress who received most of his campaign funds from small donors in amounts of $100 or less," expressed a certain amount of bewilderment at the gall of Supreme Court justices who don't have a realistic sense of how stuff actually gets done in the nation's capital.
"This place is just so inundated with corruption—it's steeped in corruption like a teabag," he said of DC. "There was a Roman emperor—Caligula—who appointed his horse to the senate. At this point, the system has gotten so bad that if the Koch brothers appointed their horse to the Senate, it wouldn't even make a difference. That's where we are."
Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.