Is It Time to Get Money Out of Politics?
Twice in recent years, the Supreme Court of the United States issued rulings that some assert reinforce the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, while others allege they have increased the importance of money in American politics.
On January 21, 2010, in a 5-4 decision, the SCOTUS declared in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310, that the First Amendment prohibits government from restricting monetary contributions by independent groups – such as corporations, associations, and labor unions – to political campaigns.
On April 2, 2014, also by a 5-4 majority, the SCOTUS decided, in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No. 12-536, that the government-mandated cap on how much an individual can contribute to campaigns in a two-year election cycle constitutes an unconstitutional infringement of free speech. Observing that Congress could regulate campaign contributions “to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption,” the court left intact the $2,600 limit on how much someone could contribute to a particular campaign.
Each ruling has driven the American left bonkers. Barack Obama and other leftists bloviated that Citizens United decision was an attack on democracy. Obama again railed against the decision in his 2010 State of the Union Address, making misleading statements in the presence of Supreme Court justices.
(If noted attorney Jay Sekulow is right, Obama’s ire over the Citizens United decision may have led to the IRS’s war on the Tea Party and other right-leaning organizations.)
The McCutcheon decision has also aroused the left’s ire. Since the left’s apoplexy over this decision has already been described, there is no need for detailed discussion. Perhaps best reflecting the caliber and tenor of left-wing reaction, comedian and faux journalist Jon Stewart described the decision as “bulls***,” asking, “If money doesn’t corrupt, what the hell does?”
There is an apparently irreparable bifurcation in the left’s and the right’s reaction to these decisions. The left equates money with corruption. Leftist Susan Estrich opines in her syndicated column of April 3, 2014, that “[t]he venerable principle of ‘one person, one vote’ is essentially meaningless when a tiny percent of all Americans, by writing checks and forming supposedly independent and grassroots committees, can and do wield undue influence on the [democratic] process and its elected beneficiaries.”
Not always. When someone like George Soros contributes millions to leftist candidates and causes, the left thinks that’s OK because he’s doing “the people’s business.” But let a corporation, or a right-leaning independent organization, donate to a candidate, a party, or a cause, and it’s the end of democracy.
People on the right, however, be they libertarians like the Koch brothers or conservatives such as Sean Hannity, equate money with free speech. As Rush Limbaugh put it, “money equals speech.”
Money has always played a role in American elections. George Washington kept detailed records of how much he spent on grog – i.e., beer, whiskey, rum, etc. – when he was campaigning for office in Virginia. Money became an especially poignant topic in 1896, when Mark Hanna parlayed businessmen’s fear of William Jennings Bryan and his supporters into giving (what was then thought to be) enormous sums to William McKinley’s presidential campaign coffers. Today, most of the money raised and spent on elections goes for television ads, campaign staff, travel, polling, and so on, although the boodle Democrats typically hand out on Election Day for “’walking-around’ money” may sometimes be used to buy some type of “adult beverages.”
Since money has always played a role in American elections, it is not surprising that there have been repeated attempts to limit its alleged corrosive impact. Several efforts were made in the 20th century, such as the Tillman Act of 1907, the Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1925, the Smith-Connelly Act of 1943, and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.
All had, at best, limited impact, and all were often attended by “unintended effects,” which have also accompanied more recent “reforms.” Almost invariably, partisan motivations shaped all or part of these efforts, a pattern that would continue.
A more serious effort, although still flawed, to limit money’s role in U.S. elections came when Congress enacted the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. Revelations that Republicans had raised huge sums for the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) in 1972, which played a role in the Watergate Scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation, caused Congress to revise the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974. In addition to placing legal limits how much an individual could contribute to a specific campaign and requiring campaigns to make public donations over a certain amount, the act of 1974 created the Federal Election Commission.
The Federal Election Campaign Act would be amended again in 1976, and again in 1979.
The 1974 Act’s constitutionality was challenged, leading to the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, 424 U.S. 1, which was complex. The SCOTUS ruled that government-imposed restrictions on individual contributions to political candidates and campaigns did not violate the First Amendment, but that government could not prevent candidates from spending their own or their family’s money on campaigns. Moreover, the Court ruled that restriction of total campaign expenditures was a violation of the First Amendment.
Congress again sought to restrict money’s impact on elections with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, aka “McCain-Feingold.” This act had two major goals: (1) limit the impact of money donated to parties rather than candidates to be used for “party-building” by prohibiting national party committees from raising or spending any money not subject to federal limits, and (2) reduce so-called “issue advocacy ads” by limiting the content of advertisements prior to primary elections or caucuses and general elections. The Act also restricted spending by non-profit or unincorporated organizations.
Much of “McCain-Feingold” was invalidated by the Citizens United decision, although the SCOTUS kept bans on money donated by foreign corporations and the $2,600 cap on donations to specific candidates during a biennial election cycle.
There are several misconceptions about money in U.S. elections. One is that the candidate with the largest campaign war chest invariably wins. Another is that Republicans out-raise and out-spend Democrats. A third is that wealthy donors give far more to the GOP than to Democrats. Democrats can tap Wall Street fat cats, obscenely rich Hollywood types, and well-heeled Silicon Valley denizens to bankroll their campaigns. Finally, it’s a misnomer that money buys influence; instead, it purchases access, and not always very much of that.
There is no gainsaying, however, that incumbents almost always out-raise and out-spend challengers. Sometimes an incumbent will raise a huge campaign war chest just to scare off potential challengers.
If the ;eft really wants to get money out of electoral politics, there is a simple solution: get government out of the economy! If the government did not control roughly half of America’s Gross Domestic Product, via taxation, spending, and/or regulation, many corporations, businesses, labor unions, and individuals would probably not have much motivation to meddle in public affairs.