Supreme Court Uncaps Campaign Donations: Does Democracy Win or Lose?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Getting elected into a governmental position is expensive — and when it comes to campaigns in American politics, money matters. But why has the price on campaigning risen so drastically, and stayed so high? Part of the explanation is simply that the United States is very large, so paying for the media and publicity required to reach out to such a large audience is that much pricier. Broadcast television slots that will actually be seen are not cheap, and the same goes for other methods of making a splash.

There’s also greater competition within the U.S., as slots that would be simply filled in other countries are fought over in America. Finally, spending caps that are seen in countries like France — which according to Brookings has a $22 million cap per candidate for the first round and $30 million for the second — are not seen in the U.S. in the same way, because contributions are protected by our Freedom of Speech rights.

This is why the Supreme Court’s ruling on Wednesday was so significant; it alters the role that money continues to play in elections. The ruling of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No.12-536, made by a five to four vote, held that certain limitations previously placed on federal campaign donations would be removed, specifically uncapping contributions from direct contributions. In 2010, the case of Citizens United removed caps on independent campaign spending done by corporations or by unions, but had left direct contributions to the candidates or parties untouched, though clearly not for long.

The argument on both sides is identical, really — for democratic elections to be protected. Cheif Justice John G. Roberts Jr. of the controlling opinion said, according to The New York Times that, “There is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders,” while dissenting Justice Stephen G. Breyer argued that the First Amendment and American democracy were at stake. Some voiced concerns that financial contributions unleashed will contribute to corruption — and Breyer warned, “If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision may well open a floodgate.”

But does the way campaigns are financed contribute to corruption? The specific case the court ruled on was that of Shaun McCutcheon, a Republican from Alabama who argues that being able to give $2,600 to 17 candidates but not 18 is arbitrary and outdated. He wanted to donate over the $123,200 cap to the Republican Party and Republican candidates, leading him to take the limit to court. Those who side with him believe donation limits prevent a greater diversity of ideas and interests from those who are not incumbents in Congress. The opposing argument is that perhaps it becomes easier to buy a candidate, and that it gives an uneven political field where those who run are those are in the position to make the most money.

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