April 3, 2014

EDITORIAL: Supreme Court opens gates for campaign money flood

Prepare for the Flood of 2014. The U.S. Supreme Court's latest ruling opens the way for yet more money to inundate political campaigns.

Siding with the Republican National Committee, the high court by a 5-4 vote on Wednesday in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission struck down the aggregate limit on donations to federal candidates and national parties. Congress approved the basic restrictions 42 years ago in response to the Watergate scandals.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority that the First Amendment protects the right of donors to give to politicians, just as it protects "flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades -- despite the profound offense such spectacles cause."

But people who burn flags operate at society's fringes. The decision, named for Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, further empowers people of wealth and privilege.

Previously, an individual donor was barred from giving more than $123,200 to federal candidates, certain political action committees and national parties in a two-year election cycle. Now, donors who are wealthy enough to max out will be able to spend millions. The exact amount is to be determined.

Democrats, who feared the court would rule as it did, calculated a single donor could give $2.4 million to congressional candidates, another $194,400 to the three main party committees, $20,000 to each of 50 state party committees, and more to the 2,700-plus independent political action committees.

The ruling will blow the lid off candidate and party donations, just as the court did with its Citizens United decision which allowed unlimited corporate donations to independent campaign committees.

"Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission" Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in a dissent joined by three other justices placed on the court by Democratic presidents, "today's decision 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."

In this latest case, Breyer warned: "Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard."

Certain limits will remain in place. Corporations still will be barred from giving directly to federal candidates, and donations to candidates will be capped at $2,600 per election per donor. But challenges to such restrictions are wending their way toward the U.S. Supreme Court.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is uniquely empowered to blunt the decision's impact. He should force a vote on legislation requiring that U.S. senators file their campaign finance reports online with the Federal Election Commission.

As it is, most senators, apparently fearing their constituents might be displeased if they knew the identities of some of their donors, file their reports in paper form, creating a lag time of days or weeks before the FEC can post them online.

With proper disclosure of donors, "working Americans" might come to question the independence of politicians who are beneficiaries of the wealthiest Americans, and vote accordingly. Given the reality of the McCutcheon ruling, the need for full disclosure of campaign money has never been greater.

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