McCutcheon v. FEC: another Citizens United

When wealthy individuals can donate unlimited sums of money to election campaigns, their votes count more than ours.

Should the rich have a larger say in the outcome of elections? It sounds like a silly question to ask, but with the decision of Citizens United v. FEC, the answer seemed to be a resounding “yes.” With the latest campaign finance case, McCutcheon v. FEC, the rich might have even more power headed their way.

In 2010, the Supreme Court issued a landmark campaign finance ruling with its Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. Splitting 5-4, the fine judges at SCOTUS decided that the First Amendment prohibits the government from limiting independent expenditures by unions, corporations, associations, politically active non-profits and super PACs – allowing these groups to donate millions of dollars to campaigns and potentially swing elections with money.

As laws stand now, contributions by private citizens are still limited. Individuals can give a total of $123,200 to candidates, national party committees and some political committees and are limited to donating $48,600 to a particular candidate – per cycle, they are limited to giving $2,600 to a specific candidate. Individuals are limited to giving $5,000 a year to a PAC, or political action committee.

These spending limits were implemented after Watergate to reign in the influence of the super-rich over elections and to level the electoral playing field, but this could all change with the upcoming verdict in McCutcheon v. FEC.

The “McCutcheon” in this case is Shaun McCutcheon, the CEO of Coalmont Electrical Development Corporation. In 2010, McCutcheon reached his spending caps donating to the Alabama governor’s race – which was a bummer to him, because he wanted to donate $1,776 to conservative candidates.

That’s right, $1,776.

McCutcheon challenged the spending cap because he feels it violates his First Amendment rights – the same argument used (unfortunately/successfully) in Citizens United. His argument is backed by the Republican National Convention, who would obviously stand to benefit greatly if McCutcheon is allowed to spend more. In an op-ed for POLITICO, McCutcheon explains that he is trying to do away with the aggregate limits on contributions, saying that the rules are outdated following Citizens United, and questions why donating to 17 candidates is allowed but 18 candidates is corrupt. In his eyes, these caps “hurt democracy.”

I respectfully disagree.

McCutcheon’s first argument is that good candidates need more funding:

“We will fight political corruption by having the freedom to spend on more candidates whom we support with more competition in the process. Good candidates who aren’t rich can raise more money and challenge entrenched insiders.”

The “insider” language here most likely points to support of Tea Party candidates. But to say that more money will fight political corruption is to say that all incumbents are corrupt, which is a pretty wild statement.

“So how can they ensure elections remain uncompetitive? How about limiting the amount of money that challengers can get from potential supporters? Aggregate limits do exactly that because politically active donors donate to incumbents first, long before they even have challengers in the cycle, and it’s those marginal dollars that aren’t there when challengers need funds. And while candidates and parties are accountable to voters and are going to be there even after elections, forcing campaign spending away from them and into super PACs creates less accountability.”

Super PACs have accountability – they have stricter donor disclosure laws than non-profit organizations like Crossroads GPS, who do not have to release their donors. Surely McCutcheon should know that – he’s the head of the Conservative Action Fund, a registered PAC for the 2014 election cycle.

But I think McCutcheon’s last point is where his opinion and mine are most different:

“More than any other reason, I am bringing this case to the Supreme Court because I love my country and ideas that it represents. The U.S. Constitution makes it clear that nothing is more sacred than the rights and freedoms of the individual. It is no coincidence that freedom of speech is enshrined in the very First Amendment, and since the earliest days of our republic we have been able to express that freedom by contributing money to the political candidates of our choosing. When there is no compelling reason to take basic freedom away from us, it must be protected first and foremost.”

First, kudos to him for loving his country and the First Amendment – we agree there. But people haven’t been donating to political campaigns since the “dawn of our republic.” The first president to run a modern campaign with a finance committee was Andrew Jackson in the 1800s. This isn’t Founding Fathers material we’re talking about here.

Even more, our ideas on freedom of speech and election spending are vastly different. In his view, the problem is that freedom-loving Americans aren’t allowed to donate as much money as they want to the candidates they want to see elected, and this cap on spending infringes on his right to voice his opinion and express himself – in this case, with his wallet. In my view, the problem is that some freedom-loving Americans have the means to give thousands of dollars to a candidate to affect the outcome of an election while others don’t.

Voting has come a long way since the Founding Fathers. Back then, voters were white, landowning wealthy men over the age of 21. No one else. Over time, we gradually grew that base of voters to include poor men, black men, women, and other minorities. The voting age moved from 21 to 18. We made progress towards full inclusion, although we certainly have a ways to go in that department. To lift the aggregate caps on campaign spending and allow rich donors unlimited donations to candidates would be a step back.

Letting the wealthy speak with their wallets and not with their votes would give even more power to our predominately white male elite to influence policy than they already have. Look at the Fortune 500 companies from last year: only 22 are run by women. Only six are black. There are eight Latinos and eight Asians on the list. It means the vast majority of the wealthiest Americans – many of whom would be interested in the outcome of this case – are white men. As we’ve seen in the past, wealthy white men don’t always support minority or women’s issues.

Elections are supposed to be an equal playing field, where each person gets one vote, and that vote is equal to the vote of everyone else, no matter how rich or poor they are. They are not a mechanism for the rich to have more sway simply because they are rich, as much as McCutcheon or businessmen like Tom Perkins wish were true. I believe that laws which allow the wealthy to donate thousands, even millions of dollars, gives these wealthy voters a louder voice than mine – and that infringes on my right to voice my opinions and express myself. Their money buys them an electoral stereo to amplify their voice. My vote can’t get me much more than a bullhorn in comparison.

Electoral caps on campaign spending are not an infringement on the First Amendment. There are plenty of other avenues to spend millions of dollars on political campaigns, thanks to Citizens United. I for one sincerely hope that the Supreme Court sides with the FEC – all votes should be equal, and elections should be won, not bought.