Inside baseball: Supreme Court throws another curve ball with big-money campaign finance ruling

The Urban Dictionary defines “inside baseball” as a “term used in American politics to utilize a means to an end through evil practices.” That seems an appropriate metaphor for today’s Supreme Court ruling eliminating one more of the few remaining restrictiosn on big-money campaign contributions. 

If the Citizens United ruling in 2010 was strike one, today’s Supreme Court McCutcheon decision was strike two, and Justice Clarence Thomas signaled that strike three is coming. That will put we-the-people farther out of the game, leaving big money at bat in perpetuity. Here’s where the game stands right now.

Strike one: In 2010, Citizens United gave corporations the go-ahead to spend all the money they want to in federal political campaigns.  The decision was based on two First Amendment theories: first, that spending money on political campaigns is the same as free speech, and second, that corporations are “persons” with the same free speech rights as individual, actual human beings.

Strike two: Today, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that Congress cannot limit aggregate political contributions. Before today’s ruling, there were two kinds of limits on federal campaign contributions:

• a per-election limit to the amount a person could give to each candidate, and annual limits on the amount given to party committees and regular political action committees.

• an aggregate limit on the total amount that any one person could give to federal political campaigns and some political action groups during a two-year campaign period.

The court struck down the two-year limit of $46,000 to federal candidates and $74,600 to political committees.

Strike three: Yet to come — there’s still a limit on the amount that a person can give to each candidate and to party committees and regular political action committees. Those limits were not challenged by the plaintiff in the McCutcheon case.  Justice Clarence Thomas said he would have struck down those limits, too. Given today’s ruling, it’s not clear to me what basis there is for any limits on any campaign contributions, and I expect that it’s just a matter of time before some case challenging the few remaining limits makes its way up to the Supreme Court.

Justice Breyer, writing for the four dissenting justices: The ruling “understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our government institutions. It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign. Taken together with citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

The Court’s majority waved away all warnings of the corrupting influence of massive campaign donations. According to Lyle Denniston, writing in SCOTUSblog, “Donors will get into legal trouble, the ruling emphasized, only if they demand a specific favor in policy or legislation in a direct exchange for the money they give.  That is the only kind of corruption that the First Amendment will allow the government to attack, the decision stressed.

Minnesota Senator Al Franken and Representatives Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison denounced the decision.

Representative Betty McCollum: “Today’s decision is just the latest example of this Supreme Court politically empowering wealthy super-elites at the expense of a healthy democracy for the rest of America…. Granting the wealthiest donors the limitless opportunity to dominate our electoral process and drown out all other voices is corrosive and destructive to our democracy.”  

Representative Keith Ellison: “The Supreme Court is continuing its push to transform the United States into a place where billionaires decide who represents the people, not We the People…. Until we get money out of politics, the priorities of working Americans will continue to be drowned out by Super PACs and wealthy donors. 

Senator Al Franken: “Ordinary people in Minnesota and around the country don’t have the luxury of pouring millions into political campaigns, and our democracy can’t function the way it’s supposed to when their voices are drowned out by a flood of corporate money. Many of us believe that the measure of a democracy’s strength is in votes cast, not dollars spent—and for us, there’s nothing to celebrate today.”

MoveOn announced demonstrations across the country, including one in Minnesota on Thursday, April 3 11:30 a.m., starting at the Federal Courthouse in Minneapolis. 

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