On April 2, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. This decision eliminated the limits on the total amount an individual can donate to federal election activity. Before McCutcheon, individuals could give a total of $48,600 annually in contributions to federal candidates (a maximum of $5,200 to any one candidate) and another $74,600 to political parties. While leaving the $5,200 limit in place, the Court said that the overall limits violate the First Amendment.
The Court’s logic on this makes perfect sense. The Court has long held that in a very real sense money in politics is a First Amendment issue. My contribution to a particular candidate is part of my right to speak on politics. Further, as a practical matter political speech costs money. Limits on political contributions have the effect of limiting speech.
Still, the Court agrees that there is a public interest in protecting against corruption. Thus it leaves the $5,200 limit in place as to how much can be given to any particular candidate annually.
South Dakota Democrat Senate candidate Rick Weiland has denounced the McCutcheon decision saying it “may be the worst decision made by any Supreme Court since the Dred Scott case reaffirmed slavery in 1857.” This is absurd. I can easily come up with at least half a dozen cases clearly more heinous than McCutcheon. For example, 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision in which the Court put its stamp of approval on racial segregation.
Mr. Weiland has made campaign finance reform central to his campaign. His campaign website says “the first bill” he will introduce will allow Congress to “regulate the raising and spending of money with respect to federal elections.” This is a broad grant of power to Congress to limit political speech. It certainly seems odd that the first thing this prairie progressive wants to do is to restrict money in politics by reducing our free speech rights.
Mr. Wieland is also a fierce opponent of the related Citizens United decision from 2010. In that case the government’s own lawyer, who defended Mr. Wieland’s position, admitted in oral argument that using the government’s logic the government could ban political books and films. This is not a “pro-democracy” position.
Campaign finance regulations benefit the connected few who already have ready access to contribution networks. In the past, insurgent candidates could be competitive because they could raise large sums from a small number of committed donors. Now, because the law makes it so hard to raise money, only candidates who can devote enormous resources to fundraising or are personally wealthy can be successful. Further, our byzantine finance law discourages underfunded amateur candidates who cannot afford the legal expertise necessary simply to fill out forms correctly.
Precisely because our law severely limits how candidates can raise money, the inevitable spending on politics goes to outside groups who tend to be more extremist. We’d be much better served letting candidates raise money in large sums and, through full disclosure, holding them accountable.
The campaign finance regulators attempt to deal with some of the more vulgar effects of money in politics by making us less free. The only really sensible reform is that of more, not less, political liberty.
Jon D. Schaff is a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen. His opinions are his own, not those of the university.