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In an interview last August, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked a question at the heart of current politics: “Why should elections be determined by how much a candidate can spend, and why should candidates spend most of their time these days raising the funds so that they will prevail in the next election?”
Less than a month ago, Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor informed a crowd at the University of Washington that in today’s politics, “what’s talking the loudest is money.” And just last week, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission case that will have immediate and insidious implications for the integrity of our democratic system.
As a result of the court’s ruling, money—more specifically, people with money—will only have greater influence over politicians at the expense of the less wealthy voters who make up the actual majority. Without immediate reform, our system of governance will slowly devolve into a bastardized version of the ideals of the Founding Fathers more comparable with the plutocracy of Carthage.
Even the most optimistic advocates of campaign finance reform doubted a good result from the same court that decided Citizens United in 2010, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts in independent expenditures, inaugurating the boom in spending that we have seen in the last four years.
In fact, the McCutcheon vote, split along the ideological divide, mirrored the result from the infamous 2010 case. If people claim that Citizens United destroyed the fabric of the political system, why should we care that the court just made an already bad situation worse? The answer is quite simple: The limits attempting to prevent egregious political corruption just got substantially weakened.
Federal law mandates that an individual may not give more than $2,600 to a candidate per election, so the most a person can give directly to a candidate in both the primary and general election is $5,200. Before McCutcheon, an individual could not donate more than $123,200 in a two-year election cycle. Direct contributions were not allowed to exceed $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to political action committees.
To demonstrate the difference between individual and aggregate limits, it was hypothetically possible to donate $1,000 to 48 different candidates, but illegal to donate to a 49th candidate. Shaun McCutcheon’s basic argument was that he should not be limited in his ability to donate directly to candidates—that these aggregate limits infringed his First Amendment freedom. Sadly, the court agreed.
Now, in a system where 0.000042 percent of Americans (that’s 132 individuals) gave 60 percent of all super PAC donations spent in 2012, in a system where only 0.08 percent of the population maxed out the individual limit of $2,600 for the election cycle in 2012, in a system where all the 2012 elections cost over $6.2 billion, the court granted limitless contribution. Without the aggregate limit, it is completely feasible that an individual could, through hundreds or thousands of PACs or a party’s joint fundraising committee, contribute $6 million to a single candidate.
We might be at the cusp of political corruption not seen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.
Indeed, despite upholding the current individual limits, McCutcheon establishes a frightening precedent. Surely, someone will view the decision and wonder why the system prevents a person from donating more than $2,600 per candidate. According to the logic of the court, that too is an infringement of the right guaranteed by the First Amendment. It is only a matter of time before the Supreme Court delivers another decision deregulating the few lingering fragments of campaign finance law.
The decision also provides legal justification for increased corrupting influence in state executives and legislatures as well. The Center for Public integrity reports that a minimum of eight and a maximum of 20 states may see their campaign finance regulations overturned depending on the state’s interpretation of the decision. In Massachusetts, the office of Campaign and Political Finance declared that it would “no longer enforce the $12,500 aggregate limit on the amount that an individual may contribute to all candidates.” As the same deep pockets buying national elections increasingly pour their money into state and local races as well, McCutcheon threatens to further weaken the representativeness of our democracy at all levels.
Though McCutcheon is a blow to the movement to end political corruption by getting money out of politics, advocates on Harvard’s campus, in Massachusetts, and throughout the country have not given up. Members of Congress recently introduced two bills—the “Government by the People Act” in the Senate and the “Fair Elections Now Act” in the House of Representatives—both of which would reduce the impact of big money by boosting the role of small-dollar donations. And lawmakers in Massachusetts are pushing for increased disclosure for state elections.
The Harvard College Rootstrikers Association is collecting petition signatures to pressure our representatives to support (or not back down from) these necessary reforms. We are also working with organizations throughout the state and country to re-energize the large-scale movement necessary to correct our broken political system.
Those of us fighting to preserve every citizen’s sacred, equal voice in our democratic process are down but not out. Now is the time to insist on reform, to take our democracy back from a small cadre of big donors and the reckless court that has empowered them.
We hope you will join us.
Daniel E. Backman ’15 is a social studies concentrator in Mather House. Jonah C. Hahn ’17 lives in Straus Hall. They are members of the Harvard College Rootstrikers Association.
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