Shaun McCutcheon (that’s him in the photo) is a wealthy guy; an electrical contractor from Alabama who is also a conservative political activist. The Supreme Court appears ready to give Shaun what he says he wants – the chance to spend a great deal more of his money on candidates for federal office.
The Court heard arguments yesterday in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a sort of sequel to the 2010 Citizens United case that I’ve lamented here in months past. If the Court goes the way the questioning seemed to indicate yesterday one more big prop will be kicked out from under the American jumble of campaign finance laws and once again American democracy will most closely resemble a political version of “The Price is Right.”
Right now, ol’ Shaun is prohibited from contributing more than $123,200 to federal candidates and political parties in a two-year cycle. You might think that would be more than enough political spending for most of us and, of course, it is. But guys with lots of money, from the right and the left, like to participate in the political process because, well you know why they like to participate in the political process. If the Court rules his way Mr. McCutcheon will soon get to start writing checks to federal candidates – just buying good government, I know – for millions and millions every year.
As Charles Fried, who served as Solicitor General in the Reagan Administration noted recently in the New York Times, “Ever since the 1976 Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo, in which the court upheld limits on individual federal campaign contributions, every Supreme Court decision on this issue has been based on the distinction between money given to candidates — contributions — and money that individuals or organizations use for their own independent campaign-related expenditures.
“The underlying idea is that while the First Amendment prohibits the government from limiting your political speech (and the more you speak, the more you may have to spend), a contribution is money spent to help someone else speak. The government may not limit your own expression (and since Citizens United that applies to corporations and unions, too), but for almost half a century Congress has limited contributions without being challenged by the Supreme Court.”
The Court’s efforts to further destroy limits on money in politics, at least after Citizens United, seems inevitable. Once you decide that the sky is the limit for the Koch Brothers or Bob’s Muffler Shop to spend money on independent political efforts then how can you logically – at least in the logic of the Robert’s Court – limit what Shaun McCutcheon can lavish in the way of cash on his Congressman and yours?
Two things above all stand out in this confluence of money, politics and policy. One is the unbridled willingness of the “conservative” Robert’s Court to trample on precedent and long-established law. The Citizens United decision tossed out 100 years of established law – law made by one branch of government and endorsed by a second – and substituted the wisdom of five appointed justices none of whom has ever held elected office. The expected next move will toss all or most of a law on the books for more than 40 years.
David Cole, writing in the New York Review of Books, makes the case that the current session of the Supreme Court may well see a host of established laws, including the candidate funding restrictions, upended by Roberts and his four like-minded colleagues. “In all of these cases,” Cole writes, “the real question is not whether the conservatives will win, but how they will win. (It’s conceivable that the liberal side will prevail in one or more cases, but most court observers think the odds are against it.) Moreover, in most of the cases, Justice [Anthony] Kennedy, usually the swing vote, has already aligned himself with the strongly conservative view, so the outcome is likely to turn on Roberts. If the Chief Justice and his Court proves to be Conservative, the term could end with a radical revision of established precedent in a host of constitutional areas. If the Court is simply conservative, the status quo precedents will remain intact. We’ll know by June 2014.”
So much for the notion of judicial restraint.
The second takeaway relates to the fact that no member of the current Supreme Court has ever been elected to anything. This is important, I think, because the justices – at least the five most consistently conservative justices – completely dismiss the arguments that unregulated money can and will lead to what the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank quaintly calls “legalized corruption.” Election law expert and law professor Richard L. Hasen says it just as bluntly: “The closer the money comes to the hands of members of Congress, the greater the danger of corruption and undue influence of big donors” and he say what the Court appears ready to do “will greatly increase the chances of a corrupt Congress.”
When U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli suggested yesterday that the Court may have gotten it wrong in Citizens when it dismissed “the risks of corruption from independent expenditures” Justice Antonin Scalia simply said, “It is what it is.” Very thoughtful.
What the definition of “is” is can simply be reduced to money purchasing political influence. And the bigger the purchase the bigger the influence. With the expected decision in McCutcheon it is possible that as few as 500 very, very rich Americans can finance all the costs of running for federal office for everyone running. In such a system the small $250 contribution from the retired couple or the small business owner ceases to matter. Why waste your valuable fundraising time connecting with what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg called “the little people” when you can raise a few hundred thousand with a couple of calls to civic minded guys like Shaun McCutcheon?
“If Scalia got out of his ideological echo chamber,” Dana Milbank writes in the Post, “he would discover that, encouraged by the court, wealthy conservatives donate to groups such as the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, which threaten to fund primary challenges to Republican lawmakers who show any ideological impurity. Because most Republicans are in safe seats (in part because of Supreme Court-sanctioned gerrymandering), the only threat to their reelection is in a primary — and so they have no choice but to obey the conservative billionaires’ wishes. The problem on the left isn’t as acute, but it’s only a matter of time before liberal billionaires execute a similar purge.”
It’s probably just a coincidence, but Politico reports today that the Koch brothers have given $500,000 to one of the shadowy outside groups that has lobbied Republicans to shutdown the government and threatened GOP “moderates” if they don’t hold fast to the defund Obamacare strategy. That kind of money going directly to candidates can’t be far away.
Reflect on this: the laws restricting the power of money and the impact on our politics of the few with “real” money were passed in the wake of serious political money scandals. The Court has already overturned one law passed in the wake of revelations that rich millionaires, like the notorious Montana Sen. William Andrews Clark, had bribed their way into the United States Senate. The law on trial in the Supreme Court this week was passed in the wake of Watergate, a case of political corruption that had at its heart political money. As sure as dawn follows the night political corruption most odorous is marshaling for the next huge scandal.
Former Solicitor General Fried reminds us that “Justice Scalia once wrote in another context, this argument is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing: ‘this wolf comes as a wolf.’ The only reason the Supreme Court would be tempted to let this wolf in is if the Court wants to see the destruction of all limits on an individual’s donations to a political candidate.”
Thanks to the United States Supreme Court more than ever the political money wolf is at democracy’s door.