Daily Meme: A Rough Week for Democracy

  • Once, long ago, lawmakers from both parties worked together to pass campaign finance reform legislation. It was a simpler time, albeit with terrorist attacks and wars in the Middle East and a presidential administration bent on giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, and in 2002, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold Republican Senator John McCain (remember him?) saw their efforts to decrease the role of money in politics turned into law, adding to an overall campaign finance regulations.
  • But since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts on independent political advertising, and the rise of super PACS, the whole system has been wobbling.
  • On Wednesday, another vestige of the system fell to First Amendment claims. McCutcheon v. FEC knocked down the total limits on individual campaign donations. While there are still caps on how much donors can give to a campaign or party, they can now give to as many campaigns or parties as they like. There’s already a book out about the decision, because apparently some people write fast.
  • People in the reform world promptly freaked out.
  • Some say the opinion is actually bad news for rich people. Conservatives, however, appeared pretty pleased with the news. Shaun McCutcheon, the plaintiff in the case, explained he was your average freedom fighter. “As an American engineer in the land of the free,” he wrote, “I wanted to understand just exactly why my First Amendment rights were being limited.”
  • At any rate, the opinion isn’t immediately apocalyptic—the number of people who want to give away hundreds of thousands of bucks to campaigns isn’t exactly high—but reformers worry in a “death by a thousand cuts” scenario, this is cut number 999.
  • Because the decision explicitly states that Congress can only regulate contributions to prevent quid-pro-quo bribery, rather than more nebulous kinds of political favoritism, the door is wide open for more lawsuits to bring down what’s left of the system.
  • For instance a case moving to strike down campaign contribution limits themselves may soon appear, which would leave the wealthy free to give as much as they want to as many campaigns as they want. Yale Professor of Law Heather Gerken worries public financing programs could be also at risk of a successful lawsuit.
  • Meanwhile Congress remains committed to doing nothing and the Republican members of the Federal Elections Commission seem eager to follow the same model.
  • So what’s left for reformers to propose? Well, Gherkin, along with Yale Law student Webb Lyons and Wade Gibson of Connecticut Voices for Children, say at the very least groups that don’t have to disclose donors should be required to state that fact. “That could help voters figure out how much trust to put in the ad,” they write.
  • But at Salon, Alex Pareene has a more effective ideaJust take away money from rich people. The “socialist” in the White House has yet to comment on the proposal.

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