Last week’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down long-standing limits on campaign donations is certainly a big win for a small group of wealthy campaign donors.
The ruling eliminates the overall limit of $48,600 by individuals every two years for contributions to all federal candidates and the $74,600 limit on contributions to political party committees. The decision does not affect the donation limit of $2,600 per candidate during a single election cycle.
The high court’s 5-4 decision continues the trend of the 2010 Citizens United ruling that struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and labor unions.
In handing down these decisions, the court sided with the view equating political donations with free speech, finding that limiting a wealthy donor’s ability to donate as much money as they want to violates their right to free speech. That view stemmed from the 1976 Supreme Court ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, the court’s seminal campaign finance decision in the wake of the Watergate scandal, which equated independent campaign spending with political speech protected by the First Amendment. But that ruling also found that Congress could cap contributions in the name of preventing corruption.
While the limits struck down by the court indeed seem arbitrary at first glance, it is worth noting that just 646 out of millions of political donors reached the legal maximum during the 2011-12 election cycle. It seems the court seeks to fix a problem that doesn’t exist, with the end result being ever more money being allowed into the nation’s political campaigns.
Campaign finance laws were a direct response to documented political influence buying that led to egregious political scandals. The Supreme Court seems determined to return us to those pre-reform days.