The U.S. Supreme Court decision Wednesday striking down limits on total campaign contributions by individuals elicited strong disapproval from a host of Democrats and liberals, as well as from good-government groups. President Barack Obama, a spokesman said, was “disappointed,” and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., predicted that henceforth, “billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”
What provoked the backlash? The court ruled that while Congress may limit the amount of money an individual contributes to each candidate for office, it may not limit how many candidates that individual can support financially.
Federal law restricts one person’s donations to a single candidate to $2,600 per campaign (a total of $5,200 for a primary and a general election), which the court left in place. But it said the overall limit of $48,600 in contributions to federal candidates per individual donor every two years effectively prevents donations to some candidates, in violation of the First Amendment.
The logic was simple and sensible. Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that while the per-candidate ceiling protects against candidates being effectively bribed through oversized donations, the aggregate limit is superfluous: If it is impossible to corrupt one candidate with a $2,600 check, it is also impossible to corrupt 25 of them with one $2,600 check apiece.
By putting a ceiling on one person’s total donations, the law prevents some people from supporting as many candidates as they would like. “The government,” wrote Roberts, “may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.”
The instant criticism of the court’s ruling was overstated as well as misplaced. The crucial reality in campaign finance regulation is that in a modern society, money and the people who have it will always play a large role in election contests. So will corporations and labor unions. Government policy is too important for those with resources not to try to influence its direction.
Lawmakers can impede or divert the flow of dollars. But trying to eliminate it from politics is like trying to banish rain from Seattle.
In reality, this decision isn’t likely to have much effect on the total amount of money spent on electioneering. Adelson reportedly laid out roughly $100 million in the 2012 election cycle, which he was free to do by giving to various “super PACs” and other groups that ran ads backing particular candidates. The Koch brothers’ group, Americans for Prosperity, spent $122 million.
Under this ruling, these magnates may send more of their money to the actual campaign organizations of particular candidates. But there is no reason to think they spent a smaller total than they wanted to on the last election, or that this verdict will cause them to spend more on the next one.
In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the court should defer to “Congress’ concern that a few large donations not drown out the voices of the many.” But rich people already have ways to spend as much as they want communicating their views. The most significant effect of the ruling is likely to be the strengthening of political party organizations at the expense of super PACs and other nonparty groups – which just might be a helpful development.
The dissenters are right in arguing that lifting the ceiling may make it easier for donors to circumvent the limits on contributions to individual candidates. But as Roberts stressed, Congress is free to address the danger by tightening the rules.
What it isn’t free to do is ration speech about campaigns. Election years might be less noisy or irritating if less money were spent by people who want to spread a message. But they would also be less informative.