Demonstrations were held across the country Wednesday as the Supreme Court continued chipping away at federal campaign finance reforms with a 5-4 ruling striking down the federal cap on the total amount of money an individual donor can spend supporting candidates and political parties during a two-year election cycle.
The ruling, which split the high court along ideological lines, eliminates the aggregate the cap on the total amount of money an individual can donate to candidates and party fundraising committees during an election season, which was set at $123,200 for 2013 and 2014. That cap was so high that only a several hundred mega-rich donors reached it during the last election cycle.
Campaign finance watchdogs now estimate that a single wealthy donor could spread up to $3.6 million among candidates, party committees and some political action groups affiliated with a single party during a single election cycle. A single donor could theoretically spend twice that amount by supporting candidates and committees from both parties, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
Conservatives are hailing the ruling as a victory for free speech. Liberals and progressives say the ruling will only increase the corrupting influence that ultra-rich donors can have on politicians, dealing yet another fundamental blow to the legitimacy of American democracy. Activists organized about 140 demonstrations and events in 38 states to protest the ruling and call for legislative action.
The ruling is not as sweeping as the Supreme Court's infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, which removed caps on the amount of money that corporations and unions can spend influencing federal elections and unleashed a tidal wave of corporate campaign cash that made the 2012 elections by far the most expensive in history.
But the ruling - one of several rulings under Chief Justice John Roberts that have eroded federal and state campaign finance laws in recent years - surely will increase the ability of rich Americans to impact elections.
The ruling also could inflate the power of joint fundraising committees, which take large donations from donors and funnel the cash to candidates and party committees with full knowledge of who signed the original check.
"Eliminating these limits will now allow a single politician to solicit, and a single donor to give, up to $3.6 million through the use of joint fundraising committees," said Michael Walden, president of the Brennan Center for Justice. "Following the Citizens United decision, this will further inundate a political system already flush with cash, marginalize average voters, and elevate those who can afford to buy political access."
Wednesday's ruling in McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission does not touch limits on the amount of money an individual can give to a single federal candidate, which currently is set at $2,600.
Free Speech or Plutocracy?
The majority opinion, delivered by Roberts, claims these limits on individual donations will keep political corruption in check. The Roberts opinion, which was supported by the court's conservative justices, argues that the cap on the total amount and individual can spend during an election cycle can prevent a donor from giving to as many candidates as he or she chooses, which violates free speech rights under the First Amendment.
Like the Citizens United ruling, the majority opinion views political speech and the money spent by wealthy donors to support candidates and influence elections as one and the same.
"Contributing money to a candidate is an exercise of an individual’s right to participate in the electoral process through both political expression and political association," Roberts wrote for the majority. " ... The Government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse."
Writing for the four dissenting justices on the liberal side of the bench, Justice Stephen Breyer argued that the ruling created a "loophole" allowing rich donors to donate millions to candidates and parties, and, coupled with the Citizens United ruling, "eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve."
The case was brought before the court by the national Republican Party and Shaun McCutcheon; a wealthy businessman from Alabama who argued the cap on aggregate donations violated his First Amendment rights by prevented him from donating to Republican candidates he wanted to support in recent elections.
"Today, the court made clear that restraints on the political speech of those whose views you don't like must fail; free speech is the right of all Americans and not a revocable grant from the government of the day," said Dan Backer, the lead political counsel for McCutcheon and the Republican Party.
Campaign finance reformers, however, said the ruling is not a victory for free speech. It's a victory for the plutocracy.
"No matter what five Supreme Court justices say, the First Amendment was never intended to provide a giant megaphone for the wealthiest to use to shout down the rest of us," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a progressive watchdog group that supports campaign finance reforms. "Our only hope of overturning this McCutcheon travesty - along with Citizens United - is if millions of Americans band together in saying 'Enough!' to plutocracy."
Growing Grass-Roots Momentum
For several years, a broad grass-roots movement has pushed to overturn Citizens United, either through legislation or amending the Constitution to declare that money spent influencing elections is not the same as free speech. Activists also are pushing for federal legislation that would amplify the impact of small political donations made by average Americans.
Jonah Minkoff-Zern, an activist with Public Citizen who helped organize protests in response to the McCutcheon decision, said the ruling would only spark more grassroots momentum.
"The rallies are a way for us to say, this is not going to be a dark day in history but a day of organizing hope and a call for change," Minkoff-Zern told Truthout.
In recent years, lawmakers in at least 16 states have passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Minkhoff-Zern said at least 150 members of Congress have signed on in support of similar resolutions.