On or around Oct. 8, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments related to limits on the amount wealthy citizens can give to support the campaigns of candidates for political office.
Existing law is based on the premise that relatively small gifts are a way to show support for a candidate without creating the real possibility, or even the appearance, of buying the candidate’s future vote on matters of interest to the donor.
In the upcoming case, McCutcheon vs. the Federal Election Commission, the legality of aggregate limits is being challenged. If McCutcheon is successful, the amount he and other wealthy citizens can funnel to candidates will effectively jump from the current cap of $123,200 in a 2-year election cycle to more than $2.4 million.
A belief in the power of the individual is basic to the American value system, and individual rights are deeply enshrined in our constitution, making us a bastion of freedom. Indeed, in recent Supreme Court rulings it is most often our cherished Freedom of Speech that has been used to strike down government restrictions on the individual’s right to give as much as he or she wants to politicians, parties, or organizations engaged in political campaigns.
Our instinct is to applaud those who have flourished in our economic system and to trust that freedoms granted to these individuals will benefit us all.
But America’s strength resides also in our pragmatism and our skepticism about any ideology that threatens our self-interest. That’s why we can’t fail to notice that too many of the upper elite of business and finance have sought to prosper not by creating value for our society, but by skirting regulation, tilting the mechanisms of taxation and commerce in their favor, and by manipulating public opinion against the very government institutions and agencies that otherwise would hold them accountable.
Looking abroad at those oppressed for speaking out, we are reminded that Freedom of Speech, indeed, is a bulwark of any vibrant democratic society. So let’s not be duped into believing the umbrella of free speech protects the activity of offering huge sums of money to political campaigns; ventriloquism — getting politicians to say what you’d like them to say--is not speech!
In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a string of disastrous decisions (e.g., Citizen’s United) opening the floodgates for private wealth to invade our public political processes. We need to keep our eye on McCutcheon vs. the FEC: Does this trend continue; or can we regain at least a hope of a democratic process in which ordinary citizens figure not only into the electoral strategy but also into the legislative priority?
on behalf of Common Cause Louisiana