Big Bucks

The Supreme Court’s War on Democracy

The conservative-controlled court is taking out one campaign finance law after another. Will Americans keep going to polls if they know it doesn’t matter?

04.04.14 9:45 AM ET

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court fired another salvo in its war on democracy with its decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (PDF). In the 5- 4 opinion, the conservative members of the Court joined forces to ensure that the wealthy in our country have even more influence in American politics. I know many of you are thinking: is that even possible? And the answer is yes.

This Supreme Court decision struck a provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 that had limited the aggregate amount an individual could contribute to federal candidates in a year to $48,600 and to other political committees (DNC, RNC, PACs, etc.) to $74,600.

What does this mean as a practical matter? Well, as the dissenting opinion of Justice Breyer pointed out, the Court has now created, “a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.”

But this is not the first time the Supreme Court, or more accurately the five Republican-appointed justices, have sided with big business and the wealthy over the average voter.  These conservative justices’ war on democracy began with its infamous Citizen’s United decision in 2010, invalidating federal laws that restricted corporations and unions from spending their funds on electioneering. The result was that these entities could spend unlimited amounts of money to influence voters and it paved the way for the creation of the monstrosities known as Super PACs.

And then in 2012, the same five justices struck down the 100-year-old Montana Corrupt Practices Act, which had banned corporations from spending money to influence elections in that State. The law was enacted in 1912 to stop the wealthy mining company owners, known as the “Copper Kings,” from bribing elected officials, buying judges and controlling newspapers.

Campaign finance laws, often enacted in a bipartisan manner, were designed to counter corruption and give people confidence in the integrity of our elections. But now they are falling like dominoes—and that’s truly a threat to our democracy.

As Justice Breyer noted in his dissent (PDF), the decision yesterday, taken together with Citizen’s United, “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.”

Lets be brutally honest. Does anyone doubt that a political candidate will be more receptive to a person who can donate millions to support his/her campaign over an individual who can only offer their vote?

I can tell you first hand, as someone who has attended hundreds of political fundraisers over the years, that money matters. It is the lifeblood of politics. And the more money you can contribute, the more influence and access you will have to elected officials. For example, I recently attended a $5,000-a-ticket fundraiser for a political committee. (Mine was free.) I was amazed at the high level of congressional leaders at this event who not only attended, but also discussed with the attendees concrete ways to shape public policy.

I can’t even imagine the influence that a billionaire like Sheldon Adelson, who can offer millions to candidates. But we did saw a small an example of it over the weekend when Chris Christie apologized for using the term “occupied territories” when speaking of the Palestinians in the West Bank because Adelson objects to that term.

Our campaign finance system has become so grotesquely obscene that even Newt Gingrich recently bemoaned the influence that the super-rich have on it—both those on the right like his former benefactor Adelson and the left like George Soros.

We are already seeing people lose confidence in our democracy because of the obscene amounts of money that corporations and the wealthy can throw at elections. A 2012 study by the Brennan Center for Justice found 65 percent of Americans say they trust government less because of the influence the wealthy have via Super PACs. Sixty-nine percent of people polled believe that unlimited campaign contributions to Super PACs will lead to corruption, including 74 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats.

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Worst of all, 26 percent of Americans say they are less likely to vote because of the influx of huge campaign donations. I can safely predict that the number of people who feel that their vote is meaningless when compared to the millions that the wealthy and corporations can spend on campaigns will rise after today’s Supreme Court decision.

So where do we go from here? We have a Supreme Court controlled by five conservative justices who are squarely pro-big business and the wealthy at the peril of the average citizen. Perhaps Congress will consider, as I wrote about in the past, super-taxing the Super PACs. (Right now contributions to Super PACs are considered gifts under the tax code, so they don’t pay taxes on these massive donations.)

Or perhaps it’s time for a government-funded campaign finance system, which is supported by 50 percent of those polled in 2013. I would also predict you will see an increase in that number after the Court’s latest assault on campaign finance restrictions.

Those may help but in reality, but nothing will truly change until the current conservative control of the Supreme Court ends.