Another blow to campaign finance law

  • 2 April 2014
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John Roberts smiles at the White House on 7 August, 2010.
Image caption Chief Justice John Roberts's Supreme Court has shown a willingness to strike down campaign finance laws

The US Supreme Court on Wednesday took another big bite out of current campaign finance law, striking down a nearly 40-year-old measure capping the total amount of money individuals could donate to political campaigns and parties.

Hanging over today's court ruling in McCutcheon v FEC is the spectre of the 2010 Citizens United v FEC decision, which allowed corporations and labour unions to make unlimited donations to independent political action committees (super PACs) and fund issue advocacy advertising.

This contributed to a general mood on the left and among campaign finance advocates of resigned outrage.

"The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling on Wednesday striking down aggregate limits on political campaign contributions is no less destructive for being so widely predicted," writes Jesse Wegman in the New York Times.

Salon's Paul Campos is equally pessimistic.

"This latest outburst of judicial activism in the struggle to render campaign finance laws completely toothless is merely accelerating a historical process that is coming to seem almost inevitable," he writes.

Ari Berman in the Nation decries what he sees as the misplaced priorities of Supreme Court, which praises the first amendment freedom of speech when tearing down campaign finance laws but ignores 15th amendment civil rights protections as it strikes down voting rights acts.

"A country that expands the rights of the powerful to dominate the political process but does not protect fundament rights for all citizens doesn't sound much like a functioning democracy to me," he writes.

According to ThinkProgress's Ian Millhiser, this decision will allow state political parties to legally funnel money to any political campaign, opening up a huge loophole in the limits on donations to individual candidates.

"Wealthy donors now have a broad new power to launder money to political candidates - they just have to be a bit creative about how they do it," he writes.

Of course, he notes, they could also just give their money directly to independent committees, as allowed under the Citizens United decision.

"But it's hardly an argument for eliminating even more limits on how far the wealthy can go to influence elections," he concludes.

FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten writes that donors may prefer to "ingratiate themselves" to political parties rather than Super PACs.

A side benefit, he says, is that the disclosure requirements for this type of donation are more stringent.

Meanwhile, conservatives are heralding the decision as a victory for free speech over counterproductive government regulation.

"I think this is a positive development, a reaffirmation of free speech, and something that liberals would appreciate more if they weren't deluding themselves about campaign finance law and what it can and cannot accomplish," writes David Fredosso of Conservative Intelligence Briefing.

Invariably, he notes, campaign finance "reform" is a fruitless project, as money always finds a way to influence politics. He says that when changes to campaign laws in 2002 limited the money political parties could spend on advertising, that money just went to independent groups instead.

"This silliness could have been completely ended had the court decided to go further and abolish all limits on campaign spending, so that all 'dark money' could flow to campaigns instead," he writes.

"And Congress could have done what conservatives proposed in 2002 in place of the useless system we adopted - increase disclosure requirements so that we know more about where campaign money comes from."

The McCutcheon decision affects a relatively small number of Americans, on both the left and the right, who reached the $123,200 (£74,000) cap on political donations.

Perhaps the most interesting development is the concurring opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, which called for doing away with all donation limits entirely, even the $2,600 (£1,560) maximum to individual candidates.

Could this be where the Supreme Court is headed?

"While Roberts goes out of his way to say that those base limits were not challenged today, he does not do anything to affirm that those limits are safe," writes UC-Irvine Law Prof Richard L Hasen in Slate.

"This opinion promises more bad things to come for money in politics, and soon."

It's the stuff of liberal nightmares and conservative dreams.