In its 2010 Citizens United decision and other rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed unlimited independent campaign spending by corporations, unions and through individual contributions to political action committees. Ohioans saw the money flood in last year, fueling ads in the presidential race and U.S. Senate contest.
Last week, the court, unfortunately, agreed to hear a case that challenges contribution limits to political candidates and party committees, threatening to dismantle what remains of post-Watergate efforts to address the corrupting effects of money on politics. One of the central principles set in the landmark Buckley v. Valeo case in 1976 — that contributions can be more strictly regulated than spending because of the potential for corruption — could come under attack.
The case at hand, brought by Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman and conservative activist, challenges overall contribution limits for each two-year election cycle ($46,200 to candidates and their committees and $70,800 to other political committees), not the more familiar limits on contributions to individual candidates and committees ($2,500 per election). He argues the limits are too low, and unconstitutional in general.
Last year, a special court in Washington upheld the overall limits, correctly seeing that individual candidates easily could figure out who has an interest in putting them in office. That reflects the core message from the Buckley case about a potential corrupting influence. It was not lost on the special court that money can be moved around from committee to committee, circumventing the limits on individual contributions.
The high court would do well to resist departing from precedent and uphold the caps on overall contributions. Should the limits go, experts in campaign finance correctly fear, it could lead to the end of all contribution limits. Already some organizations operate under IRS rules that do not require disclosure of donors. Will the court now compound the problem by returning to a wide-open system in which those with the most money overwhelm elections, and then drown out the voices of others when policy decisions are made?