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McCutcheon Supreme Court Case Could Give Money More Say in Politics

McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission is seen by campaign finance reform watchdogs as a sequel to Citizens United.

(Image: Lance Page; Adapted: David Neubert, Melissa Maples)

Why are social justice organizations up in arms about an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case involving political contribution limits? It might have something to do with America’s widening income inequality, which in many ways is being financed by wealthy campaign donors. A ruling in favor of lifting limits on the amount individuals can contribute would allow the wealthiest of the wealthy to control parties in ways that would make the Great Gatsby proud.

McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission is seen by campaign finance reform watchdogs as a sequel to Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that held the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations, associations, or labor unions. Independent expenditures are campaign communications that support or oppose candidates but are made independently of the candidate, committee, or party. In other words, the Supreme Court said that money talks and political races are not the venue to hush it — even if spending by Fortune 500 companies might drown out the political expressions of people of color and those of limited means.

A case brought by an Alabama businessman and the Republican National Committee, McCutcheon seeks to lift the aggregate limit — currently set at $123,200 — on how much an individual can donate directly to federal candidates, parties and traditional political action committees during a two-year election cycle. A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs threatens to exacerbate the muffling of the poor while widening margins of inequality. Oral arguments are scheduled to begin Oct. 8.

“In McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to restore faith in government and the political process by limiting the influence of money in politics,” said Kim Keenan, general counsel for the NAACP. “This is the result that Americans deserve.”

The NAACP is helping lead the Democracy Initiative coalition, which joins civil rights organizations with labor and environmental groups in response to the post-2010 assault on voting rights, including restrictive photo ID and “proof of citizenship” voter registration laws. Democracy Initiative member organizations Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Communications Workers of America and the NAACP, along with about a half-dozen other organizations that collectively represent over 9.4 million members, have signed on to an amicus brief in McCutcheon that opposes lifting contribution limits.

“The last thing our nation needs is another decision like Citizens United, opening up the floodgates to even more corrupting money from big polluters that will drown out the voices of the rest of us and wash away any remaining notion of accountability in our government,” said Courtney Hight, director of the Sierra Club’s Democracy Program.

The brief argues that un-damming campaign contributions would further damage public trust in government officials. Gallup polling shows that the American public currently has the lowest confidence in Congress in 40 years, while the public policy think tank Demos reports that 60 percent of Americans today say members of Congress are more likely to vote in a way that pleases their financial supporters. Another poll released last year by the Corporate Reform Coalition showed that 84 percent of Americans believe corporate political spending mutes the voices of the average American.

Without the cap on individual contributions to candidates, parties and committees, a donor could effectively buy races — or a series of races, for that matter — by paying millions. That kind of spending would be unfair to low-income voters who have no other choice but to rely on the “one wo/man, one vote” principle because they don’t have extra income to spend on races. Since the policy priorities of the wealthy are not in harmony with those of the less well-off, uncapping political donations could widen income and racial inequality.

As the legal brief notes:

A study of the 2004 Presidential election is illustrative. In that campaign, the top-contributing zip code (located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side) was 86.4% white. This one zip code, home to fewer than 100,000 voting age residents, generated more campaign dollars than the 377 U.S. zip codes with the largest percentage of African Americans, home to 6.9 million voting age residents; as well as the 365 zip codes with the largest percentage of Hispanic residents, with 8.1 million adults.

This could have only gotten worse since 2004 given that the primary beneficiaries of post-Great Recession recovery have been the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.

In his report “Why Hasn’t Democracy Slowed Rising Inequality?,” Stanford University political science professor Adam Bonica writes, “Revolving door jobs [between Wall St., K St. and the Beltway], lobbying, and campaign contributions by the rich, when coupled with free market ideological proclivities in the voting population, are likely to have abetted the increase in inequality.” He also notes that the financial deregulation we’ve seen in recent decades, whether in politics or the marketplace, “has been a source of income inequality.”

Bonica’s study finds a correlation between low income and low voter turnout, which he says is further driven by “measures that make it relatively costly for the poor to vote” (voter ID laws being one example) and wealthy citizens who are able to influence political processes through their resources.

“If those with lower incomes are less likely to vote,” writes Bonica, “then the political system will be less responsive to a rise in inequality.”

Last year, I reported on studies that showed people of color are less likely to vote when they believe the forces of super PACs and other big money bundling schemes are running the show.

While McCutcheon impacts federal elections, the corporate domination of politics is playing out in states as well, where legislatures are rolling back public campaign finance programs and making it easier for big businesses to influence policy. We see this in North Carolina, where a controversial new elections law ends public financing of judicial elections, forcing candidates to rely on private donors, and increases limits on donations to political candidates. It also allows corporations and individuals to contribute unlimited dollars for certain activities related to political campaigns, like hiring accountants.

These kinds of laws make elections feel like auctions. While everyone can vote, not all of us can afford to bid.

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