Regardless of where your political convictions lie, there is no escaping that McCutcheon vs. FEC, the recent Supreme Court decision striking down most limits on political donations by individuals, was both controversial and important. The controversy is immediately evident: the court split five to four along partisan lines, with Justices Roberts writing the majority opinion, and Justice Breyer writing the dissent.
Echoing Citizen’s United vs. FEC in 2010, Roberts writes that money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. He writes that the Government has a strong interest… in combatting corruption and its appearance but that this interest must be limited to a specific kind of corruption — quid pro quo corruption. And he writes that in the end, aggregate limits on contributions do not further the only governmental interest this Court accepted as legitimate.
Breyer writes that the majority opinion misconstrues the nature of the competing constitutional interests at stake.
It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental 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 has again ruled, in other words, that money is a form of speech. And it has ruled that wealthy citizens on both sides of the political aisle are now free to donate unlimited sums to whomever they choose, as long as contributions to any single candidate do not exceed the current limit of $5,200. While the court’s dissenters warn that such a ruling undermines the legitimacy of the legislative process.
This decision, of course, will be greeted with glee by some and dismay by others.
But no matter where we stand, it raises questions that are key, and that we must all answer together: to what degree do we wish to be governed by financial interests? And in what sense — financial or ideological — are we willing to invest ourselves in the governing process?
While we do not all possess the kind of material wealth that catches headlines and drives campaigns, McCutcheon vs. FEC does not mean that we, as citizens are without resources — very far from it. That very same First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech that makes campaign contribution limits unconstitutional also guarantees each of us the right to be heard — and the ultimate platform is our vote.
Voting, however, is not enough. It is the culmination of the election process and not the determiner of which issues are important — which are on the table. The most important way that we can influence the political agendas of this country, and the nature of debates, is to get involved.
- Volunteer for campaigns
- Attend precinct meetings
- Build relationships with elected officials
- Organize on the grassroots level
Pay attention and participate.
The political landscape of the United States was founded, formed, and grown on ideas. Regardless of any Supreme court decision, it has never been easy, and it never will be easy, to make our voices heard. But it has always been worth it.
To read the unabridged opinions in McCutcheon vs. FEC, have a look here [PDF].