Four years ago, in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court struck down limits on independent campaign contributions from corporations and unions. Since then, spending by super PACs and shadowy 501c(4) groups has exploded. Today, the Supreme Court continued toward its goal of gutting virtually every existing limit on campaign spending:
[Citizens United] did nothing to disturb the other main form of campaign finance regulation: caps on direct contributions to candidates and political parties. Wednesday’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No. 12-536, addressed that second kind of regulation.
It did not disturb familiar base limits on contributions from individuals to candidates, currently $2,600 per candidate in primary and general elections. But it said that overall limits of $48,600 every two years for contributions to all federal candidates violated the First Amendment, as did separate aggregate limits on contributions to political party committees, currently $74,600.
There are still some limits left. Direct contributions from individuals to specific candidates are still capped, and direct contributions to candidates from corporations are still banned.
The effect of this decision is unclear. Will billionaires start giving enormous sums of soft money to political parties? That would presumably require parties to set up lots of different committees that are putatively for different purposes, which in turn would probably give rise to yet more legal challenges. But if the past is any indication, the bright boys and girls who run these things will figure out a way.
I suppose it might even be a good thing, if you believe that parties have gotten too weak compared to billionaire donors these days. This could give them a way of rebuilding their influence and providing more central control over messaging and candidate selection. But I doubt that. The cringe-inducing spectacle of Republicans trekking to Las Vegas this weekend to kiss Sheldon Adelson's ring in hopes of becoming his fair-haired child and sole recipient of his millions, shows that the horse is truly out of the barn on the role of the super-rich in political campaigns. It's possible that McCutcheon will strengthen party machinery and provide a slight counterweight, but more likely it will simply give billionaires even more control over the electoral process. I guess the best we can hope for is that they continue to be as stupid in their political spending as they've been so far. Unfortunately, as the Koch brothers are showing, my sense is that they're finally getting a little better and a little more disciplined about this stuff. Billionaire politics is here to stay.
This is not a good turn of events for popular democracy.