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Supreme Court gets it wrong again

Posted: April 4, 2014 2:10 p.m.
Updated: April 7, 2014 5:00 a.m.

It seems like every year, I have to write a story about how the U.S. Supreme Court is continuing to make campaign finances worse and worse. In 2010, it was the court’s Citizens United decision. In 2012, the court’s refusal to even reconsider the Citizens United case. In 2013, I wrote about the arguments made in McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission (FEC).

The Supreme Court ruled in that case on Wednesday and the news wasn’t good in my opinion. As I stated more than a year ago, the case -- involving Alabama conservative activist and businessman Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee (RNC) -- is, essentially, a Citizens United redux.

Allow me to remind you that Citizens United opened the door for SuperPACs (both conservative and liberal, I will note) to accept unlimited contributions and, in at least some cases, without fully disclosing who made those contributions.

McCutcheon challenged the “aggregate limit” on contributions individuals make to candidates, political parties and some PACs. In the current election cycle, the limits are $123,000 -- $48,600 to candidates, and $74,600 to parties and PACs.

Keep in mind, as I pointed out last year, that this is for the total contributions someone makes, not the limit people can give to each candidate, party or PAC. McCutcheon didn’t challenge that limit, which is $2,600 during a cycle to a specific candidate.

No, McCutcheon challenged the total contribution cap during an election cycle. In other words, McCutcheon and political supporters like him want to have absolutely no limit on the full amount of contributions they make. They want to be able to contribute to all the candidates they want (at the $2,600 per cycle cap), to all the political parties they want (although I can’t imagine too many people choosing to support the Democrats, Republicans, Green Party, Libertarians and others all at once) or PACs. And there are a lot of PACs.

McCutcheon got what he wanted on Wednesday, with a majority of justices striking down the aggregate limit.

In one summary of the case I read Friday, McCutcheon had already donated $38,000 to 16 federal candidates during the 2012 election cycle, and more than $25,000 in non-candidate contributions (parties and PACs). He wanted to donate to an additional 12 federal candidates, pushing him past the FEC’s limit -- a limit established all the way back in 1974 following the Watergate scandal and upheld, by the Supreme Court, in 1976. The formula for the limits was changed in 2002 as part of campaign financing reform.

The U.S. District for the District of Columbia took the case in 2012, with McCutcheon and the RNC claiming the limits placed “a burden on free speech and association.” The district court, however, granted an FEC motion to dismiss because, it wrote, “The government may justify the aggregate limits as a means of preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption, or as a means of preventing circumvention of contribution limits imposed to further its anticorruption interest.”

Basically, we don’t want politics any more tainted by big money than it already is.

I’ve said before and I’ll say again, while there are certainly big money donors for the Democratic Party, it seems to me that it is the Republican Party that benefits most often from cases like McCutcheon and the Citizens United decision. As I’ve already pointed out, McCutcheon is a Republican Party donor; Citizens United is a conservative nonprofit that supports conservative Republican candidates.

So, it was no surprise to me that Wednesday’s vote fell on party lines, with the conservative majority voting to strike down the cap and liberal minority voting to keep it in place.

Frankly, I don’t care whether rich political donors are Republican or Democrat. The problem with cases like McCutcheon’s and Citizens United is that it only affirms that campaigns aren’t really about politics, they’re about money.

Several analyses I read on the decision point out, too, that the donors most likely to benefit from Wednesday decision are elite white males. While I would love to be one of those one day (strictly from a “I’d like to pay off all my bills” perspective), does this mean that McCutcheon helps support a racial and sexist agenda, too?

As Al-Jazeera’s Naureen Khan (no relation; look at the spelling) pointed out: “Only a quarter of these donors were women,” she wrote, referring to elite 2012 election contributors and citing a Public Campaign analysis. “Almost half of them lived in the richest 1 percent of neighborhoods ... fewer than one in 50 lived in a majority African-American or Hispanic neighborhood ... and 28 percent of them worked for Wall Street or had roots in the financial sector.”

Some science fiction and even present-day thrillers use a trope called corporate oligarchies or corporatocracy. It’s where corporations -- many of which are controlled by elite white men (and a few women and a few people of color) -- such as giant financial and tech companies, lobbying firms and, dare I say, even big-time media organizations really are the government.

While organizations may employ thousands, perhaps millions, of people, the companies are owned and managed by a select few. They are the ones in control, they wield the power.

Many would argue we’re already there. Perhaps they’re right, but McCutcheon certainly doesn’t help things.

Republican or Democrat, our votes should count. I’m afraid they won’t in the future, perhaps the very near future.

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