In the midst of a lengthy press conference rant earlier this week about his refusal to negotiate with Republicans about the government shutdown or the debt ceiling, President Obama took time out to ride another one of his favorite hobby horses: anger at the Supreme Court’s evisceration of restrictive campaign finance laws. The president sounded the usual liberal cries of alarm about the possibility that citizens or groups won’t be stopped from articulating their views in reaction to the Supreme Court’s deliberations on Tuesday. The high court’s 2010 Citizens United decision took down the McCain-Feingold regulations that effectively restricted political speech rights by independent groups and citizens. But the court’s ruling on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission could similarly strike down efforts to hamper the ability of individuals to contribute directly to political candidates and party committees.
According to the president and his cheering section at the New York Times editorial page, the likelihood that the conservative majority will rule in favor of McCutcheon’s plea to eliminate specific limits on contributions to candidates and parties is legalized corruption. They believe political speech should be severely limited because free spending will result in the rich or powerful “buying” elections. But at the heart of the campaign finance law impulse is not a defense of democracy but a desire to squelch it. Unrestricted free speech is not inherently Republican or Democratic, conservative or liberal, but what supporters of the current laws want is to make it harder for independent voices to be heard. The campaign finance laws are set up to make it easier on incumbents of all parties and to reinforce the power of establishment media outlets like the Times, which can use its constitutionally-protected bully pulpit to promote ideas and candidates it prefers as much as they like. Just as important, the convoluted web of campaign laws at the heart of the McCutcheon case constitutes a barrier not only to speech but further actual corruption by taking elections out of the hands of the only political players that are truly accountable: candidates and parties.
As Politico noted yesterday, the main beneficiaries of a victory for McCutcheon would be both the Republican and Democratic National Committees. Since the law specifically restricts the ability of donors to contribute to these national political institutions, money instead flows to unaccountable independents like those protected by Citizens United. There is nothing wrong with independent groups having their say, and the McCain-Feingold effort to stop them was an offense to democracy and, as the court rightly noted, an unconstitutional infringement of free speech. But if those interested in politics are able to give more to the national party committees and the candidates themselves, the result will be that the players in elections can have a greater say in campaigns and therefore be more accountable for what is said on their behalf.
Stopping wealthy individuals from giving more to parties and candidates won’t keep money out of politics. Nothing will do that, especially when you consider that the real corruption in government comes from the ability of politicians to use earmarks and other legislative tricks to dole out goodies to their allies or favored constituencies. The smart way to attack that problem is not by starving non-incumbents who have more problems raising funds than incumbents or making it difficult for others to donate to multiple candidates. Limiting the ability of Congress to play that game with earmarks and other legislative tricks will do more to keep the system honest than 40 years of campaign finance laws have done.
But at the heart of this case is the fundamental drive on the part of the political left to treat political speech as a commodity that can be regulated like interstate commerce. They don’t trust the ability of the people to sort out the varied political messages with which they are bombarded. Instead, they want to dole out political speech in small packages. Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said from the bench on Tuesday that limits on contributions give the “little people” more say. But what she really wants to do is limit everyone’s speech. The Constitution protects the right of all citizens, rich or poor, to speech. The law cannot favor some at the expense of others. Income may be redistributed via the tax laws if the Congress wills it, but free speech cannot be handled in the same manner. That is especially true when one considers that a citizen who spends money on an independent committee has no such restrictions but that one who gives to a candidate or a party is severely limited. Elections are influenced by campaign expenditures just as they are by many factors, but the notion that an office can be bought is given the lie by the failure of many well-funded or wealthy politicians.
The campaign finance laws have created a powerful bureaucracy and a set of laws that force politicians and even private citizens who wish to speak up to hire lawyers if they want to avoid being prosecuted for minute violations of arcane regulations. This does nothing to enhance democracy. The court should follow up on the blow it struck for free speech in Citizens United in McCutcheon. If it does, the only real losers will be those liberals who fear an unrestricted debate of the issues.