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Editorial | Campaign finance reform takes a new hit from Supreme Court

April 3, 2014 

The following editorial appeared in the Kansas City Star on Thursday :

The rich get richer, and the rich get more latitude to pour more of their money into American elections.

That’s the effective outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday in a case that challenged aggregate federal campaign contribution limits on free-expression grounds.

Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court ruled 5-4 that overall limits on how much an individual can donate to candidates (now $48,600) and committees ($74,600) represents a violation of the First Amendment. The court’s ruling did not eliminate those limits for individual contributions to single candidates and committees, but allows contributors to give money to as many candidates and committees as they wish.

An Alabama businessman, Shaun McCutcheon, had challenged the Federal Election Commission limits, because they capped his ability to contribute to more candidates. According to some reports, the ruling would have affected fewer than 1,000 campaign contributors in the 2012 election cycle.

The court, in the Citizens United case of 2010, had already turned the campaign-finance landscape into a bountiful, influence-peddling playground for billionaire activists, corporations and interest groups. The latest ruling further erodes election protections instilled by reform-minded Congresses of the past and longstanding efforts to minimize the effect of money in politics.

Writing for the other side, Justice Stephen Breyer said that the court’s conservatives, through both rulings, had “eviscerated our nation’s campaign finance laws.”

Some predict the court’s decision lays the groundwork to eliminate contribution limits entirely. That might feel like reality now, given the rise of super-PACs and 501©(4) “social welfare” organizations that funnel hundreds of millions of dollars opaquely into the political process. And certainly it looks that way in Missouri, which eliminated campaign contribution limits in 2008.

American voters deserve better disclosure – Congress can address that – and some semblance of confidence that the political system is not hopelessly broken or controlled solely by those with the most money.

Democrats could take a stand on one aspect of the issue by insisting that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid bring to a vote legislation that mandates electronic posting of campaign-finance reports by the mostly well-funded members of that body.

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