McCuthcheon v. F.E.C.: Supremes Shake up Politics Again

Posted on April 2, 2014 by


As Dr. Haymond noted in a previous post, the Supreme Court handed down McCutcheon v. F.E.C. today, which, in spirit, is a companion case to Citizens United v. F.E.C. in 2010.

Both cases deal with the conflict between campaign finance reforms and Free Speech. We have a long history of campaign reform, including limits on the amounts of money individuals can give candidates, political parties, and political action committees. The Court’s decision today did not overturn those limits ($2,600 to an individual candidate per election cycle), but did get rid of the limit on the aggregate amount for any one individual, which was set at $123,200 for candidates and parties.

What does this mean? People will be able to give more money directly to more candidates and party committees, though they are still restricted in how much they can give to a particular candidate or committee. The Court reasoned that limits beyond that burden Free Speech too much. Practically, we will see money flowing into more accountable entities (candidates and parties). I am not sure this a bad thing at all. It should actually lead to more transparency since we can observe (due to F.E.C. guidelines) who gives how much money to which candidates.

Popular or not, the Court is correct that spending money is a fundamental element of Free Speech. This is true no matter your income level. To project your speech beyond simply howling at the moon, you have to spend money or at least leverage your resources to spread your message. Engaging in political speech is the heart of the First Amendment and reducing the amount of money one can spend limits, by definition, political speech.

The great fear, of course, is that wealthy Americans will buy and sell candidates and parties as their own little playthings. Corruption is the great enemy of campaign finance reform and it is the proper enemy, naturally. At the same time, as one professor of mine explained in graduate school, campaign money is like air inside of a balloon. Reform advocates might squeeze the balloon and say, “let’s limit how much someone can give to political parties or particular candidates.” When the squeeze happens, another part of the balloon gets bigger. Political money, like the air inside the balloon, is going to go somewhere. Regulations won’t really get money out of politics, they will simply redirect it temporarily.

Progressives are already lampooning the decision as the end of democracy. Beneath their belief is a lurking populist conception that “big business” will squelch the working man and enrich itself in the process. Too many progressives tend to view business monolithically. The reality is that some of the wealthiest companies in the world, and the people who run them, are quite progressive–Google? Apple? If anything, with President Obama in the White House, conservatives should be fearful of the often crass relationship between the President and his corporate and Hollywood admirers.

The only meaningful solution, just as Dr. Haymond notes, is to disconnect business interests from the government as much as possible. We do this best not by limiting campaign funds (which is constitutionally questionable) but by severing the entangling elements of the regulatory state. A simplified tax code, an end to corporate subsidies, and a reduction of the most pernicious regulations, like the Affordable Care Act, would drain the D.C. swamp faster than any campaign finance reform.