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It’s Citizens United all over again

Posted: February 22, 2013 3:32 p.m.
Updated: February 25, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Last July, I wrote about how disheartened I was that the Supreme Court of the United States refused, on a 5-4 partisan vote, to reconsider one of its worst decisions ever: Citizens United. The original 2010 ruling opened the door for “super” political action committees (Super PACs) to accept unlimited contributions and, in at least some cases, without full disclosure on where that money’s coming from.

Wednesday, I came across the following headline from The Washington Post’s The Fix: “The Supreme Court campaign contributions case, explained.” I thought it was some sort of Citizens United redux. I was right, in a way.

The Fix’s Sean Sullivan was writing about a Republican Party challenge to, as he wrote, “existing aggregate limits on contributions from individuals to candidates for federal office, and the parties and political action committees that support/oppose them.”

Uh-oh, I thought, here we go again: another attempt to rig the democratic process in favor of those who can, essentially, buy elections instead of toward the actual people who enter voting booths.

Sullivan’s post is a well-written, not dumbed-down, succinct primer on the case. There’s a “conservative activist and businessman” from Alabama named Shaun McCutcheon. He and the Republican National Committee (RNC) are challenging what is known as the “aggregate limit” on the contributions individuals make to candidates, political parties and some PACs. For the 2013-14 election cycle coming our way, the limit would be $123,000 -- $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to parties and PACs. Understand, we’re talking about how much someone can spend on all the candidates, parties and PACs they support.

What the RNC and McCutcheon are not challenging are the limits people can give to each candidate, party and some PACs. “For example,” Sullivan points out, “one person can’t give more than $2,600 a cycle to a specific candidate.” Again, that’s not being challenged.

Sullivan does a great job of laying out the stakes about uncapping the total, aggregate limit of donations:

“Let’s say someone wants to make the maximum contribution to their favorite Senate and House candidates. With a $2,600 limit on what one person can give to a specific candidate and a $48,600 cap on what that person can give to all candidates, that works out to a maximum (of) donations to 18 candidates, and no more. If McCutcheon and the RNC are successful, the cap will no longer apply -- freeing individuals to donate to far more candidates if they choose.”

On the surface, that seems perfectly democratic and in keeping with our free market philosophies, doesn’t it? Why shouldn’t people support everyone they want to if they can?

However, as Sullivan quotes Tara Malloy, senior counsel for Campaign Legal Center -- a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization supporting strong enforcement of campaign finance laws -- it “could lead to a situation where eye-popping amounts of money were being contributed to one side.”

And which side would that be? Well, look at who’s making the challenge: a conservative businessman and the GOP. They wouldn’t be doing this if it wouldn’t benefit them.

Look, it’s no secret that -- for the most part and generally speaking -- the Republican Party represents business, usually big business on the national scale, and the wealthy. I’m not saying that sarcastically: it’s a simple truth of American politics and life. The Democratic Party is, traditionally, representative of the middle and lower classes, of labor, if you will.

So, while those who want to support lots and lots of Democratic Party candidates and PACs will benefit, too, logic would dictate that they have -- again, generally speaking -- less money to spend on the candidates of their choice.

Sullivan linked to charts from the Sunlight Foundation, another nonprofit, nonpartisan group dedicated to greater government openness and transparency. During 2012, contributions to Democratic-aligned Super PACS totaled $309.5 million. Contributions to Republican-aligned Super PACs were just over $594 million. More telling, however, is what they spent. The charts show that the Democrat Super PACs spent $189.9 million versus a whopping $406 million by the Republican Super PACs.

General election spending by the two sets of Super PACs was $295.3 million for Republicans versus $178.2 million for Democrats. There are also groups called “noncommittees.” I’m not quite sure what those are, but the Republican versions of those, too, outspent the Democrats $201.7 million to $37 million. Party committee spending was a little closer together with the GOP spending $137.5 million on the general election versus $112.6 by the Democratic Party.

From everything I’ve seen, the 2010 Citizens United decision favored Republicans, too, for the same reason: their supporters are simply richer.

The court heard the arguments in this case a week ago; there’s no telling when the justices will rule. Again, I turn to Sullivan, who noted that the current court ruled in favor of Citizens United which means they could vote in favor of McCutcheon, too.

If it does, I think we’ll see a further deepening of the “1 percent” influencing all levels of politics. That’s not good for the majority of Democrats or Republicans.

People from both parties like to think their vote counts for something when they enter the voting booth, not their dollars -- or the lack thereof.

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