This article is re-'printed' from the April Newsletter of the Southern California Republican Women and Men.
On April 2, in McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to limit the total amount that citizens may donate to political entities, or to limit the total number of candidates anyone may donate to in any two-year election cycle. Per-candidate limits of $2600 in the primary and another $2600 in the general election remain, but instead of being limited to 9 candidates, a citizen may donate to any number of them. And the overall cap of $123,200 on combined candidate, party and PAC contributions is history.
Democrats and media pundits greeted the news publicly with all the serenity they might reserve for the second coming of Robert Bork. Nancy Pelosi characterized it as an 'existential threat' to the nation. But even if she is sincere, she must certainly be talking about someone else, not herself or her immediate power base, as she is no slouch when it comes to fundraising. Indeed, even the New York Times conceded that the ruling is not an unambiguous victory for any one party. In fact, the ruling favors national parties over more narrowly-focused PACs and 527s. Parties tend to be more broad-based, more transparent and accountable than PACs and 527s, and had been put at a relative disadvantage in the 2010 Citizens United ruling, which shot down limits on corporate and union money.
Republicans may be encouraged that of those donors who maxed out under the old rules, 60% contributed to Republicans, but there is no guarantee that unlimited contributions will maintain the same proportions. As for this ruling increasing the corruptibility of our politics, the Wall Street Journal points out that there were only 664 such maxed-out individuals in 2012 for a total of $93 million, which is a less-than 4% drop in the bucket compared to the $2.8 billion raised from the much larger number (1.2 million) of more ordinary tycoons like you and me. Moreover, that $2.8 billion number is only 64% of the total spent on 2012. David Brooks, the relatively conservative voice of the New York Times, reminds us that 'There will always be money in politics; it’s a pipe dream to think otherwise' and that the net effect of campaign finance restrictions in the past has been to protect incumbents.
The vote was 5-4 along the usual-suspect lines, with Justice Clarence Thomas commenting that the ruling didn't go far enough in lifting restrictions. With the per-candidate limits still in place, we have the possible moral hazard that wealthy individuals who may not personally be the best candidate for the job, are nevertheless obliged to run themselves instead of sponsoring a more qualified (by whatever criteria chosen) candidate. This tends to fill our public offices with rich dunces and people skilled at broad-spectrum fundraising at the expense of nonwealthy, less-sophisticated candidates whose experience, understanding of economics and constitutional principles nevertheless might make them the voter's choice if only a handful of donors could have gotten the word out to make the public aware of that choice.
The fact that the ruling has generated such a diversity of opinion as to what it really means and who wins is an argument in its favor. The free market is not any one institution; it is the option to choose among many institutions, or no institution at all. The market for political expression has become one increment freer. We citizens now have the blessing and the responsibility of that greater freedom.
There is yet hope for America.