McCutcheon, Citizens United, and Electoral Politics

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a campaign finance law restricting federal campaign contributions to $123,000 per year in the case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. This decision is a continuation of the Court’s gutting of campaign finance laws and allowing greater influence from corporations and rich individuals. But why would conservative members of the court expand corporate influence on politicians when at the same time, their politician counterparts are waging a war on government influence/interference in private enterprise?

What exactly does McCutcheon v. FEC do? Prior to the Court decision, individuals were only able to contribute an aggregate limit of $123,200 to federal candidates in an election cycle. They could give at most $48,600 to federal candidates and $74,600 to party committees. By law, a person can only contribute up to $2,600 to any one candidate so under the previous law, a person could only give the maximum individual contribution to eighteen candidates. The limit to any one party committee was $32,400 meaning that at most, only two committees could get the maximum contribution.

The Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, gets rid of the aggregate limit. Although donors are still limited to contributing $2,600 to any one candidate they can now contribute that amount to as many candidates as they see fit. The $123,200 limit is gone and donors can contribute as much money as they want to. A majority of the Supreme Court sees aggregate limits as a limitation to free speech and struck it down on that basis.

This is the biggest American election decision since Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Citizens United allowed corporations and unions to spend money from their general treasuries on political advertising before elections. Citizens United did not allow corporations to donate directly to campaigns though, but with this new ruling, if corporations did gain that right, their ability to inject funds directly into campaigns would be unlimited. Is this where the Supreme Court is heading? In SpeechNow.org v. FEC, the Court ruled that corporations could contribute unlimitedly to independent organizations, organizations that don’t donate to candidates directly. This along with the recent McCutcheon decision seems to indicate a growth in that direction.

There has been a flurry of pieces in the wake of the recent decision on what this means for our elections. The Washington Post created a list of winners and losers from the case and Slate laments the inability of John Roberts to see that money corrupts, but these analyses miss the bigger question. Since the recession, conservative rhetoric has been that the government is a hindrance to private enterprise and is at the bottom of the economic collapse (against all evidence). Why is it that the Supreme Court allowing rich individuals and corporations to inject money into the political system while conservative politicians and intellectuals push for the government to stop interfering with private enterprise?

It cannot be because of the populist victory of Barack Obama. While his rhetoric during the 2008 campaign sided with people against the banks and corporations that led to the financial crisis, President Obama has done nothing but side with those very same banks and corporations. From the bailout to not prosecuting a single person responsible for the crash to forcing austerity on the poorest of Americans, President Obama has been lockstep with the ideas conservatives have been pushing. While the Court decisions have come after his election, they don’t seem to be directly influenced by his win.

Instead, it may just be that the ideas of the rich are not as consistent as they’d like to think. The same people who advocate for less oversight and less regulation of private enterprise generally support the vast amounts of subsidies and grants that come from the federal government. The idea behind denigrating the government’s role in business is not to get rid of it entirely, but only to get it out of the areas that reduce businesses’ bottom line. Government programs that assist the poor, ones that corporation have to pay into, are acceptable targets for the chopping block, but money given from the government to fund research and development are not. The ability to inject more and more money into the electoral process allows the rich more opportunities to decide exactly what cuts are necessary.

The ability to reform electoral finances is slowly being stripped away, but it wasn’t much of a solution in the first place. Even while these laws were in place, the majority of senators were still millionaires. Congress and the President still sided with businesses rather than the people. These decisions are simply exposing electoral politics as a dead-end. 

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