Money, politics and the First Amendment
Along with many people in this country, we at The Daily Sentinel are concerned with the corrupting influence of excessive amounts of money in politics. But we also believe in protecting the free speech rights of all Americans, even those who happen to be wealthy and interested in politics.
The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that spending money on politics is a form of speech. In a case decided Monday, McCutcheon v. FEC, the high court expanded on that ruling by determining that an overall limit on how much money an individual can spend during an election cycle is unconstitutional.
It’s important to note that this week’s ruling doesn’t eliminate the cap on how much an individual can give to a single candidate during a two-year election cycle — $5,200. But it allows one individual to give more total money to multiple candidates than the $123,000 that had been allowed under current Federal Election Commission rules.
That limit basically prevented an individual from giving allowable total amounts to more than nine congressional candidates in a two-year election cycle. In that regard, it’s hard to argue with Chief Justice John Roberts’ logic in the majority opinion he wrote for the court.
“If there is no corruption in giving nine candidates up to $5,200 each, it is difficult to understand how a tenth candidate can be regarded as corruptible if given $1,801,” he said.
Not surprisingly, many are upset with the decision.
“The Roberts Court has weakened America’s democracy and contributed to a system of legalized bribery by allowing big money to swamp the voices of regular Americans and dramatically alter the outcome of elections,” said Anna Galland, the executive director of MoveOn.org.
But as Roberts also wrote, “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects” such as flag burning.
Excessive amounts of money can certainly influence the outcome of elections, but they don’t guarantee victory. Consider last year’s recall elections for two Colorado state senators. Individuals, PACs and outside groups opposed to the recall outspent the pro-recall interests by nearly 6-1, according to the Sunshine Foundation. Even so, both senators were recalled.
As we noted back in 2010, when the court decided its Citizens United case that eliminated the caps on how much money corporations, unions and nonprofit political organizations may spend on independent political advertising, balancing the public interest against the First Amendment rights of groups and individuals is always difficult.
This week’s decision isn’t the bombshell that the Citizens United ruling was, but it will unquestionably increase the amount of money involved in congressional elections. Still, we continue to believe that transparency requirements, not spending caps, are the most important requirements for allowing voters to understand which candidates are beholden to whom.